What being thrown out of Russia taught me about the Kremlin’s war on the media – POLITICO

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During my 10 years as a Moscow-based journalist, I struggled to imagine how and when I would eventually leave Russia.  

Half Russian myself, I had moved there in 2013, keen to learn more and report on a country that I felt was often misunderstood by many in the West.

In the end, the decision was made for me last month when a representative of Russia’s foreign ministry called to tell me that my visa would not be renewed and I had six days to leave.

The decision, I was told, had been taken by the “relevant authorities,” a term widely used to refer to the security services.

After POLITICO published a news story on my expulsion, I received a message from a fellow journalist wishing me luck.

“The same thing happened to me,” they wrote.

In the days since, other colleagues have shared their stories about their de facto expulsions from Russia. Most have deep ties to Russia and speak the language fluently.

Taken together, their cases illustrate a worrying trend: Journalists from Western countries are slowly being squeezed out of Russia, as the Kremlin cracks down on the last few independent voices covering the domestic impact of the war in Ukraine ahead of a presidential election next year.

“It is a way of setting the tone,” Alexander Baunov, a former Russian diplomat, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, told me.

“Otherwise the Western press corps might think they are free to do as they please. The point is to have them ponder every phrase, weigh their every word.”

The home front

As Russian tanks lined up on the road to Kyiv in February 2022, back home the Kremlin was launching a second assault: on the country’s independent media.

First, government censor Roskomnadzor blocked online access to the handful of critical outlets still operating. 

As Russian tanks lined up on the road to Kyiv in February 2022, back home the Kremlin was launching an assault on the country’s independent media | Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Then, new laws were passed, effectively banning the word “war” and introducing a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for the dissemination of information that called into question the official narrative on what Russia calls the “special military operation.”

Russian journalists took their cue and fled the country en masse. Concerned by rumors the authorities were about to impose martial law and close the border, many of their foreign colleagues followed suit.

As weeks and months passed, however, many of the latter gradually returned. 

While Russian citizens were being prosecuted under the new censorship laws, “it seemed then that we weren’t going to be sent to jail [for our reporting],” Arja Paananen, a correspondent for the Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat, told me in a phone conversation. 

This fit within a long tradition of foreign journalists being spared from domestic repression.

In the years before the war, the ticket to that special status came in the form of an accreditation issued by Russia’s foreign ministry, for which journalists were required to reapply once a year in order to then secure a visa.

As relations between Russia and the West took a nosedive following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the paperwork increased. Starting in 2022, for example, Russia introduced mandatory health checks for foreigners, involving fingerprinting, a chest X-ray and a session with a psychiatrist. 

Some journalists began to be told to submit samples of their work along with their request to renew their accreditation.

But the extra red tape was largely viewed as a harmless, albeit cumbersome, formality.

It therefore came as a shock when in summer 2021, the longtime BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford was told upon returning from a reporting trip in Belarus that she had been designated a “security threat” and was being barred from Russia for life.

Officially, her de facto expulsion was described as an answer to the two-year-old case of an employee of the Russian state news agency, TASS, who had reportedly been denied leave to stay in the U.K. 

Several months later a Dutch journalist was ousted, this time over two old administrative offenses.

Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges in a case unprecedented since the Cold War | Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

Still, the two expulsions appeared to be anomalies rather than bellwethers of a mass purge, and the general assumption that the Kremlin paid little heed to non-Russian media coverage remained largely intact.

Only in March this year was that belief finally quashed, when Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges in a case unprecedented since the Cold War. His detention was, as Paananen put it, “a warning sign to all correspondents.”

The news sparked a second exodus of Western journalists. But dozens, the majority of them citizens of European countries, stayed behind, even as they faced harsher restrictions and growing uncertainty.

‘It’s all over now’

Since the war, for citizens of what the Kremlin calls “unfriendly countries” (those which have imposed sanctions on Russia), the accreditation cycle has been shortened to three months. 

The foreign ministry never formalized or explained the change. But during a press conference in February, roughly a month before Gershkovich’s arrest, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova аnnounced the end of what she called the old “regime of maximum favorable treatment.”

“It’s all over now,” she said. Foreign journalists “are going to live their lives and get their documents in a new way: the way it’s supposed to be.”

She added that journalists would not be allowed to work in Russia if they “treat us, our country, our people boorishly and disparagingly.”

Asked for comment, the foreign ministry said its decisions to exclude foreign correspondents were a reaction to the “real terror” being waged against Russian journalists in the West.

“In the context of the harassment of the Russian media unleashed by the West, it was decided to respond by changing our policy towards journalists from unfriendly countries and introducing pinpoint restrictive measures,” the ministry said in an email to POLITICO.

In practice, the three-month review appears to have been used as a way to filter out some journalists — while keeping others on their toes.

Often, a negative decision is not made explicit or formalized, but is communicated to the journalist through an intermediary and presented as a temporary, procedural issue. 

Once they have left Russia, the person is left in limbo only to conclude months later that they, in fact, have been expelled. 

During a press conference in February, Maria Zakharova аnnounced the end of what she called the old “regime of maximum favorable treatment” | Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

In my initial conversation with the foreign ministry, I was told that according to “international law,” I would not get an explanation or reason for the refusal. But after my ousting received broad media coverage, Zakharova in a statement volunteered several

Among my transgressions were that I had been away from Russia for a large part of 2022, during which I had not published enough articles for my employer. But the main argument was geopolitical: In light of the “bullying” of Russian media and journalists by the EU, there “should not be any questions” about the visa problems of a Dutch citizen.

Caught out

Others have been given different reasons for their expulsions. 

Most Moscow-based correspondents have a remit covering the entire former Soviet Union, including Ukraine. As a result, Russia’s full-scale assault on its southern neighbor caught many on the opposite side of the front line.

The Russian authorities never stated openly that they expected journalists to pick a side. But how long they stayed in Ukraine after the invasion, and whether they have continued to report from there, appears to have become an unofficial test of loyalty. 

Luzia Tschirky, a correspondent with the Swiss public broadcaster SRF News, was among journalists woken by explosions in Kyiv on the first day of the war. Part of a small team, she stayed on to cover the invasion’s immediate aftermath. 

In May of last year, she returned to Moscow only to face the displeasure of her handler at the foreign ministry. 

“I was told that I had not come back fast enough after the ‘special military operation,’ and that others had returned sooner,” she told me in a phone conversation.

She had lost her status as a permanent correspondent and would need to reapply as a special correspondent. While that was being processed, she would have to leave Russia. 

When she asked for a timeframe she was told that: “these days that is decided on an individual basis, and differs from person to person.”

Since then, Tschirky, who had been based in Moscow since late 2018 and is a fluent Russian speaker, has resubmitted her paperwork four times: never getting a clear refusal, never getting a green light. “I just got the same answer over and over again: It’s being processed,” she said.

When her name disappeared this summer from the ministry’s online list of accredited bureau chiefs she saw it as a bad sign but decided to stay quiet.

When Luzia Tschirky’s name disappeared this summer from the foreign ministry’s online list of accredited bureau chiefs she saw it as a bad sign | Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

“It is the Swiss way of hoping that something would change and a miracle would happen,” she said. “Compared to other countries, normally Swiss journalists are the last ones to get into trouble.” 

Agitprop lecture

Another journalist, who requested anonymity to speak freely, recalled being summoned by a Russian official for a “comradely” meeting.

“The tone was jokey, friendly, theatrical at times,” the journalist told me.

During what the journalist compared to an “agitprop lecture,” the official argued that any inconveniences faced by European journalists in Russia simply mirrored those experienced by Russians in Europe.

“The person insisted that it has nothing to do with what we write about Russia, and that the authorities would never get involved in editorial stuff.” 

But then the journalist was asked why, if they regularly traveled to Ukraine, they even needed Russian accreditation. Considering their absences, one could suspect the journalist of being a spy.

“It could have been a threat, maybe not, you never know in these talks,” the journalist told me. “The person was smiling.”

Аlthough they did eventually get their documents, they are no longer in Russia. “I definitely felt unsafe,” the journalist said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

Freelance dilemma

In the case of one French journalist, their employment status became the reason for their ousting.

Formally, a journalist can only obtain accreditation on behalf of a single publication, and only staff journalists are allowed to work in Russia. But for years the Russian authorities have tacitly accepted the reality of a media industry in which freelance journalists have to work for several publications at the same time. 

The French journalist, who asked not to be named, worked for several media outlets from Moscow for more than four years. A few months after the full-scale invasion, they moved away from Russia, but frequently traveled back and forth.

Five days before their accreditation was due to expire this summer their foreign ministry handler called and, in a conversation eerily similar to mine, told them that the Federal Migration Service had refused to issue a visa. No further explanation would be given, the handler said, in accordance with “international law.”

Arja Paananen accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of displaying “the doublethink of an autocratic leader in the style of George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’” | Oleksii Filippov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Later, another person from the foreign ministry, whom the journalist described as “well informed,” said it was because they had not written enough for the specific medium they had been accredited for.

“I was told I could try to reapply, but that it would be ‘very difficult,’” the French journalist said. “I understood then that the decision was final.” 

No official explanation

Most of those who spoke to me suspected that a specific report acted as a trigger for their ousting.

In July 2022, Paananen, the Finnish journalist, wrote an opinion piece where she accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of displaying “the doublethink of an autocratic leader in the style of George Orwell’s novel 1984.”

The foreign ministry slammed the piece in an online riposte as “a blatant example of anti-Russian propaganda.”

Two months later, in October, for the first time since 1990 when she first started covering what was then still the Soviet Union, she was told her accreditation papers were not yet ready. 

From Finland, she kept contacting her handler at the ministry who gave her the same polite answer: “She understood that it was a massive inconvenience for me, but kept telling me that she was still waiting for the right signatures from the ‘bosses’ who’d been very busy and so on.”

Leaving open the possibility it had been a mistake or delay, she waited until February this year to say openly that she’d been expelled. 

“They never gave me an official explanation, but they don’t have to: They’re starting to prevent foreign journalists from working here, but are doing it in a soft way,” said Paananen.

A similar story played out in the case of another Finnish correspondent, Anna-Lena Laurén, whose ties to Russia go back to 2006. She and her 13-year-old daughter left in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, but returned to St. Petersburg several weeks later.

I told my daughter: We can plan ahead three months at a time, but be prepared we might have to leave again,” Laurén said.

When she applied to have her accreditation renewed in May, she was told by the foreign ministry to “‘be careful with what you write,’” she told me. “It was practically a threat.” 

Anna-Lena Laurén published a piece about Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Hufvudstadsbladet, “about how he used to be respected, but now he’s a persona non grata” | Pool photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the warning, she continued traveling to, and reporting from, Ukraine, bracing for trouble in Moscow. “But nothing.”

Things changed after she published an article on Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in April in the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet, “about how he used to be respected, but now he’s a persona non grata. You know, the story everyone has written at some point.”

Shortly after, a lengthy text appeared on the foreign ministry website in a section dedicated exclusively to “fake news,” defending Lavrov point by point and launching a fierce, personal attack on Laurén.

“Maybe the editors of the publication for which Lauren is accredited should ask themselves: what is she actually doing here [in Moscow]? It is possible to write talentless, vile libel from Helsinki,” the text read.

The next day, Laurén packed her bags and left for Finland with her daughter. She didn’t tell anyone. 

“Before this war, I wouldn’t have cared,” Laurén told me. But in light of Russia’s law against ‘fake news,’ she felt the statement could be a precursor to something worse. 

A week before her visa was due to expire mid May, she was told by the ministry that there had been a delay with her papers. 

“They were very polite and nice, but also very clear that I was to leave Russia.”

In its written answers, the foreign ministry declined to comment on specific cases or disclose the number of journalists it had expelled — but accused the West of far worse treatment of Russian journalists.

“The countermeasures of the Russian side are exclusively retaliatory in nature and are not commensurate in their scale with the mayhem caused by Washington and Brussels.”

One false move

Even those who do secure the right paperwork to remain in the country face a series of new challenges.

Some are relatively innocuous: This year for the first time journalists from “unfriendly” nations were not accredited to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum.

Even those who do secure the right paperwork to remain in the country face a series of new challenges | Harry Engels/Getty Images

Others, less so. The Wall Street Journal has reported that, prior to his arrest, Gershkovich was being followed and filmed by security service officers. 

Journalists have most commonly experienced harassment while on reporting trips to Russia’s regions, often in the form of local media crews who happen to know their exact itinerary or the location of their hotel.

Interrogations by border officials, in some cases lasting hours, have become part of the process of leaving, and returning to, Russia. 

Several people told me they were ordered to hand over their phones or share their IMEI number, which allows their location to be tracked.

One journalist was told by a Russian friend that they had been visited by the FSB — the main state security agency — and ordered to cut all ties with the journalist.

In the months leading up to Paananen’s expulsion, she twice came home to her St. Petersburg apartment after a trip to find her fridge leaking and the power mysteriously cut off.

“The first time could be an accident, but the second time I had been physically cut off from the main switchboard. The electricity company dismissed it as a misunderstanding.”

Such anecdotes reinforce an impression since Gershkovich’s arrest that Russia’s security services consider foreign journalists a legitimate target. 

“One false move, a conversation with the wrong person or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you could end up facing accusations you’re a spy,” said one journalist in Moscow, who was granted anonymity for reasons of safety.

‘Logic of the prison camp’

Baunov, the former diplomat turned analyst, said Russia’s leadership is likely guided by the principle of reciprocity in deciding how far to go in limiting the size of the foreign press corps.

Even as some longtime correspondents are being pushed out, others are being given extensions and some new journalists are given accreditations. 

“If Russia kicks out all foreign correspondents, the same would happen to its own correspondents in the West,” said Baunov.

That’s little assurance to those left in Moscow.

“By kicking some people out, they’re trying to scare the daylight out of the rest,” said one of the Moscow-based journalists. “And by providing different ‘reasons,’ they’re trying to make those who are left behind think that if they behave this or that way, they might get to stay. It’s the logic of the prison camp.”

Many of the journalists I spoke to expressed sadness at being ousted from a country with which they had a long history, but they said their experience in Russia had taught them to take things one day at a time. 

“I covered the collapse of the Soviet Union and I remember how quickly that went,” said Paananen. “I can’t predict what will happen in Russia but I’m quite hopeful that I’ll live to see it.”

“The Russia I loved is gone,” the French journalist told me. “I already said goodbye a year ago. This time it was not as hard.”

Eva Hartog was editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times before reporting from Moscow for Dutch news magazine De Groene Amsterdammer and POLITICO Europe.

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