On August 2, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov took part in a panel discussion called “Elements of Social Engineering” at a youth forum in Solnechnogorsk, a town in the Moscow region.
Peskov said Western media outlets have been “receiving instructions and manuals” from their intelligence services, which he said mostly contain “professionally prepared falsehoods.”
“There are a lot of serious media outlets [in the West], a lot of talented journalists, smart, professional, but now, since they unleashed this war against us, they absolutely live in a state of military censorship,” Peskov said.
Peskov’s statement is an example of an accusation in a mirror — accusing the West of doing what Russia is doing.
Moscow has weaponized the Russian news media in its hybrid war against Ukraine, including to portray its war of aggression as a Western plot against Russia.
An audience in New Delhi, India, laughed at Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for repeating that false claim in March.
Russia enacted strict censorship measures last year criminalizing accurate war reporting. Yet, Peskov now claims it is “Western media” that is living under a state of “military censorship.”
Like other authoritarian regimes, Russia’s government regularly treats “Western media” as if they uniformly represent the interests of their governments.
But unlike the Russian state media apparatus, Western media outlets have a variety of funding and ownership structures, not to mention editorial lines.
The Russian government launched a war against the independent media in 2000, soon after Vladimir Putin became president and partly in response to critical coverage of a brutal war in Chechnya.
The Kremlin has long controlled the three major TV channels, where most Russians still get their news.
Under Putin’s decades long rule, the Kremlin systematically dismantled or co-opted other independent media outlets. That process ramped up after Russia’s clandestine invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
In December 2013 — roughly two weeks after the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine began — Putin dismantled the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, which attempted editorial balance and critical coverage of Russian domestic affairs.
A reconstituted state news agency — MIA Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) — owns and operates the broadcaster Sputnik and the RIA Novosti news agency. Rossiya Segodnya’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, is also editor-in-chief of RT (formerly Russia Today).
The database of the Russian federal agency for government property management lists MIA Rossiya Segodnya as “the property of the government of the Russian Federation.”
MIA Rossiya Segodnya fully represents the Kremlin’s interests in its editorial line and has been central to Russia’s nearly decade-long propaganda war against Ukraine.
In March 214, the chief editor of the liberal news website Lenta.ru was replaced with a pro-Kremlin figure after running an interview with Dmytro Yarosh, leader of Ukraine's Right Sector movement. Journalists from Lenta.ru later set up the news outlet Meduza, which operates out of Latvia to avoid Russia’s censorship regime.
Independent media outlets have long faced state-sanctioned harassment. Some were forced to register as “foreign agents,” which Daniel Salarua, a contributor to the International Press Institute, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, described as a “key tool for repressing independent media.”
Russian journalists have regularly been targeted for attacks. Dozens have been killed.
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine saw a significant ramping up of Russia’s censorship regime.
Russia adopted a law making it illegal to call the war in Ukraine a war. Reporting what the Kremlin deems to be false information about its war in Ukraine or the Russian armed forces can be punished by up to 15 years imprisonment.
Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor “obliged” media outlets to use only “information and data” from “official Russian sources.”
The media law led several Russia media outlets to stop covering the war in Ukraine. The liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) was shuttered for not censoring its war coverage. And the Nobel Prize winning independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta was forced into emigration in Europe.
The beleaguered Russian TV channel Dozhd ceased operations in Russia and eventually relocated to the Netherlands. (Russian cable providers had already dropped Dozhd in 2014.)
In July, Russian authorities designated Dozhd as an “undesirable” organization.
Under Russian law, membership in an undesirable organization is an imprisonable offense.
Roskomsvoboda, a Russian nongovernmental organization that supports freedom of information and digital rights, said that Roskomnadzor had censored 10,000 internet resources in the first year of the war. A number of websites, including VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the BBC, DW, Facebook and Twitter, were blocked.
Smaller independent Russian news portals, including Mediazona, Republic, Taiga.Info and Lentachel, have challenged Roskomnadzor's censorship moves in court.
In February, Setevye Svobody (Net Freedoms Project) estimated that in the first year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at least 1,000 journalists had emigrated from Russia “because of the threat of criminal prosecution and a ban on the profession.”
Journalists, social media users and opposition members refusing to toe the Kremlin line have faced prosecution.
On April 13, 2022, Russian journalist Mikhail Afanasyev was imprisoned for “knowingly publishing false information about Russia’s armed forces.” His crime: writing a factual report about National Guardsmen from Khakassia, his home republic in Siberia, who had refused to fight in Ukraine.
Ethnic minorities across Siberia have been disproportionately targeted in Russia’s Ukraine war mobilization drive.
Also, on April 13, 2022, Sergei Mikhaylov, a journalist from Altai, another Siberian republic, was arrested on the same charges. He had called for Russia to be sanctioned over the war.
Both men face up to 10 years in prison.
Maria Ponomarenko, a journalist from the Siberian city of Barnaul, was sentenced to six years in prison for a social media post about Russia’s deadly airstrike on a theater used as a civilian shelter in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which reportedly killed hundreds.
In June, Ponomarenko and four others imprisoned for speaking out against the war in Ukraine received the Boris Nemtsov Award for their "brave defense of democratic rights and freedoms.”
The award takes its name from Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader assassinated near the Kremlin in Moscow in February 2015. Nemtsov was working on a report, published posthumously, about Russian soldiers secretly fighting in Ukraine at that time.
In April, Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison, in part for spreading what Russian authorities called “false information" about the Russian army.
Amnesty International said the charges against Kara-Murza stemmed “solely from his right to freedom of expression.”
On August 2, a 67-year-old pensioner, Takhir Arslanov, was sentenced to three years in prison for claiming “Kremlin fascists” were waging a war of aggression in Ukraine, and for calling for the burning of draft offices.
In Reporters Without Borders’ 2023 World Press Freedom Index, Russia ranked 164th out of 180 countries and regions.