On April 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin said its intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), had prevented a “terrorist group” from carrying out a plan to assassinate a prominent Russian TV journalist.
“[W]e know by name the overseers [of the plot] from Western intelligence agencies, primarily, of course, from the CIA of the United States, who work with the security agencies of Ukraine. Apparently, they give such advice,” Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency quoted Putin as saying.
The FSB released a video purportedly showing the arrest and interrogation of three alleged Russian nationalists, who said on camera they met with Ukrainian intelligence, who ordered the assassination of several Russian journalists, including Dmitry Kiselyov and Margarita Simonyan, the CEO and chief editor, respectively, of Rossiya Segodnya, the state-owned media conglomerate that includes RT, Sputnik and RIA Novosti.
Commenting on the supposed plot, Kiselyov said:
“There is no country in the world that treats journalists more cruelly than Ukraine. The regime simply cannot stand freedom of speech, and reckless lies have become the only method of information work in the public field.”
That is false. When it comes to mistreating journalists, Ukraine is nowhere close to Russia, which consistently ranks near the bottom in press freedom.
It’s true that Ukraine isn’t exactly a safe place for journalists. Especially since Russia launched an all-out war in February. Seven journalists have died covering the fighting. Inside Russia, journalists have been arrested and threatened. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the abuse in detail.
OK, but what about before the invasion?
Freedom House, the nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington, D.C., ranked Russia “not free” in its annual 2021 report and gave it “zero” points in answering the question: “Are there free independent media?”
“The government controls, directly or through state-owned companies and friendly business magnates, all of the national television networks and many radio and print outlets, as well as most of the media advertising market. A handful of independent outlets still operate, most of them online and some headquartered abroad. The few still based in the country struggle to maintain their independence from state interests.”
For comparison, Ukraine is rated as “partly free” in that same report, and Freedom House gave Kyiv two out of four points for free and independent media. It criticized Ukraine not for government censorship, as in the case of Russia, but over the influence of powerful media moguls:
“The media landscape features considerable pluralism and open criticism of the government and investigation of powerful figures. However, business magnates own and influence many outlets, using them as tools to advance their agendas. President Zelenskyy has previously received significant support from Kolomoisky-controlled media outlets. Other parties also receive favorable coverage from 'friendly' media.”
The Paris press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said of Russia in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index:
“With draconian laws, website-blocking, Internet cuts and leading news outlets reined in or throttled out of existence, the pressure on independent media has grown steadily…
“As the major TV channels continue to inundate viewers with propaganda, the climate has become very oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse, or just try to maintain quality journalism. Vague and selectively laws are used to imprison journalists and bloggers.
“The Kremlin seems determined to control the Internet, a goal referred to as the ‘sovereign Internet.’ Journalists are now being branded as “foreign agents,” a defamatory label already applied to some media outlets and leading media defense NGOs.
“Murders and physical attacks against journalists continue to go unpunished…”
Reporters Without Borders’ pre-invasion assessment of Ukraine was nearly similar to that of the Freedom House. It noted that Ukraine’s media landscape was diversified but the oligarchs still maintained a tight grip on the media:
“Ukraine had a diversified media landscape and its authorities have adopted a number of long-awaited reforms since the 2014 revolution, including a law on media ownership transparency. But these gains are fragile.
“Much more is needed to loosen the oligarchs’ tight grip on the media, encourage editorial independence and combat impunity for crimes of violence against journalists.
“‘Information warfare’ with Russia has had negative consequences that include bans on Russian media and social media, cyber-harassment and treason trials.”
Since it launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, the Kremlin has tightened the noose around the independent media, largely suffocating what remained.
Novaya Gazeta, TV Dozhd’, Echo Moskvy Radio, among other independent media outlets, have been forced to close. Hundreds of journalists left after the government criminalized independent reporting about the Ukraine war, even using the word “war” instead of the Kremlin-mandated “special military operation.”
Russian military in Ukraine have reportedly bullied and threatened journalists, and Russian forces stand accused of kidnapping Ukrainian journalists and holding them hostage.
The claim that the West and Ukraine are suppressing media freedom are part of Russia’s running disinformation narrative. Most recently, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov falsely claimed that the West was guilty of “totalitarian” censorship.
The narrative is pushed from the very top. In his April 25 address to the Collegium of the Prosecutor General’s Office, Putin claimed that as “Western intelligences” are suffering a “fiasco” in the information war against Russia, they are “switching to terror, to preparing the murder of our journalists.”
Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, denied the allegations as “fantasies cooked up by Moscow.”
State news agencies, TV and print media in Russia covered Putin’s comments in lockstep as a top story.
To be sure, Ukraine’s record on censorship is not unblemished. In February 2021, President Volodymir Zelenskyy moved to block TV channels owned by the Putin friend and ally Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian businessman who has supported Russia’s separatist war in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine officials said Medvedchuk’s channels were financed by the Kremlin and had become instruments of war.
Medvedchuck, according to news reports, had been identified before the Russian invasion by U.S. intelligence as a possible puppet leader to replace Zelenskyy, should the war topple Ukraine's government. Medvedchuck was charged by Ukraine with treason, then was caught and detained after escaping house arrest.
Zelenskyy suggested swapping him for Ukrainian POWs.
In an April 24 report, Ukraine’s independent, nonprofit Institute of Mass Information said Russia forces had committed more than 200 crimes against journalists in the first two months of war. Besides the seven journalists killed, the IMI said:
“The list of Russian crimes also includes shelling, threats, harassment of journalists, shelling and seizure of TV towers, hacking attacks on Ukrainian media websites, shelling of media offices, shutting down Ukrainian broadcasting, blocking access to Ukrainian media websites in Russia and the occupied Crimea.
“In addition, at least 106 regional media outlets were forced to cease their work due to threats from the Russian occupants, seizure of offices, inability to work under temporary occupation and print newspapers, etc.”