Saturday, September 23

As a Russian news anchor, I was there when the free press ended in my country | Denis Katayev

ORn 3 March, the last remaining independent TV channel in Russia, Dozhd – or TV Rain in English – stopped broadcasting. Over the past year, journalists’ few remaining freedoms in Russia have been evaporating, with the censors tightening their iron grip, and last week they finally reached their ultimate goal. This sounds dramatic, but I believe that the era of independent media in Russia has ended. The free press is officially and legally over for now.

I hosted a news show on Dozhd called Here and Now. We’ve been broadcasting since 2010, and we’ve been through tough times before. During the poisoning and later arrest of Alexei Navalny – and the subsequent protests – in 2020 and 2021, we totaled 1.1bn views through our streaming and YouTube channels. Despite being thrown out of the Kremlin journalist pool, and being branded “a foreign agent” by the justice ministry, we were proud to stay on air and reach millions during those historic times.

Still, the war in Ukraine came as a shock to all of us. It was announced by Vladimir Putin on state TV at 5am. Like the beginning of the great patriotic war after the Nazis bombed Kyiv, there was no formal declaration: it was called only a “special military operation”. After the initial shock, we broadcast on air 24/7; many of us slept in the office. We are a small team, but we all felt the historic importance of the endeavor – the need and demand for objective and independent information for the public.

We told the truth from the beginning: we called it a war (this terminology was later banned by the censors). We ran segments saying what was really happening in Ukraine. I interviewed Ukrainian officials and journalists, and ordinary people in Kyiv, Mariupol, Lviv and other cities as they were being bombed by the Russian military. This sort of thing would never appear on state TV.

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It felt as if we really were the powerful free press of Russia. On YouTube we were getting 10-25m views a day. In some ways I’ve never felt more invigorated than during that excruciating first week. But it rapidly became too dangerous to continue. A law introducing a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison for spreading “fake news” about the actions of Russian soldiers came into effect on 4 March. This, in effect, left us with the Russian defense ministry as the only remaining legal source of information on the war, and it was still denying any civilian casualties – and reporting very few military losses.

At the same time, the prosecutor general’s office started qualifying any financial or strategic help to Ukrainian residents as treason, punishable by a 20-year prison sentence – absurdly, even an interview with a Ukrainian journalist could theoretically be considered treason now.

This raised the stakes too high; it effectively made true journalism too risky to pursue in Russia. Last Thursday we were forced to close down, hours before the law came into effect, in order to protect our team from inevitable persecution. It’s temporary, we hope, as all of us are willing to find ways to continue working in some shape or form. “It’s not the end of the show, only of a season – to be continued,” were the parting words of Natalya Sindeyeva, our co-founder and CEO. Sindeyeva and Tikhon Dzyadko, our editor-in-chief, exhibited a heroic work ethic and inspirational leadership during the final weeks of Dozhd.

Since then, the situation for the press has deteriorated further. Facebook and Twitter have already been blocked and it’s only a matter of days until YouTube follows. The great Russian firewall is being built, brick by brick in front of our eyes, leading to complete isolation from the outer world. The iron curtain is returning, reminding us of the Soviet times so dear to Putin’s heart – but something tells me that USSR 2.0 will be an even better place than its ill-fated predecessor. Like a dark and absurd Coen brothers creation, this will not be a country for journalists old or young. Modern Russia as we know it is coming to an end. It’s not only Ukraine that Putin is bombarding right now, but Russia too – its culture, its heritage, its civilization.

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Expecting the worst, on Sunday I made the most difficult decision of my life and boarded the last Aeroflot flight allowed to land in the EU. Just like in 1922 when intellectuals fled the newly established Soviet Union on board the “philosophers’ ships”, hundreds of Russian independent journalists, politicians, artists and public intellectuals have now relocated to Europe with flights landing in Georgia, Latvia and Armenia among others. I will pursue journalistic work in France, a country I have long admired for its values ​​and principles. I am writing a letter directly to Emmanuel Macron, who showed courage and persistence in attempting to counter Russia’s aggression, to request permission to work.

Living through all this, the theory I hold to is that Russia is not fighting Ukraine, but rather Putin himself is. It is his revenge for the democratic transition it embarked upon, and its turn towards Europe. Putin hates this, and so he also attempts to erase the signs of Russian Europeanisation. Political debate, the free press: it is all part of the battlefield. But I am still convinced that Russia is Europe, even as it temporarily diverges from its path in the most criminal way possible. We will end up back on course, and not even Putin with his bombs can prevent this from happening.

We will continue the spirit of the free press embodied by Dozhd, by that name or another, from abroad if we have to. And one day, both Russia and Ukraine, alongside each other yet independently, will become fully integrated peaceful members of Europe and will be seen as such. We work towards that.

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