When Maria Borzunova and Sonia Groysman attended a briefing with their team at the independent Russian media outlet Dozhd TV earlier this month, it didn’t take place at their office in a trendy Moscow neighbourhood.
Instead, the former colleagues met in Istanbul to discuss what to do next, after fleeing Russia when their channel was abruptly taken off air.
“There is simply no plan at the moment. We are all just trying to figure out what to do with our lives,” said Borzunova, who was a news presenter and correspondent at Dozhd, on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Bosphorus.
On 1 March, Russian internet providers shut down the website and app of Dozhd TV, the country’s only independent television channel, also known as Rain TV.
The move was part of an unprecedented attack on free speech in Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Practically all independent Russian-language media outlets, including the news site Meduza and the long-established radio station Ekho Moskvy, were blocked or shut down. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been banned and access to foreign news outlets including the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe has been restricted.
Russia has also passed a law that punishes spreading “fake” information about the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine with up to 15 years in prison.
“We really wanted to keep working even after we were taken offline,” said Groysman, who was a video reporter at Dozhd.
But after the channel received “credible threats” that police were about to storm their office, Borzunova and Groysman, together with the rest of the team, started to frantically look for plane tickets to escape abroad.
“Once we heard about the possible raid, we knew we had to get out. It was game over,” Groysman said.
At least 150 Russian journalists, including most of the team from Dozhd, are believed to have fled Russia.
Istanbul has emerged as a popular destination, given a lack of alternative options in the west after countries closed their airspace to Russian airlines who, in turn, cancelled international flights.
Some media, like the last major independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, have tried to stay alive by telling their readers they self-censor while covering the war. Others, such as Meduza and the Moscow Times, moved their whole offices outside of the country.
For Dozhd, both options seemed futile.
“It was clear we couldn’t do our work honestly with the new law,” said Borzunova. “And since we are a television channel, which needs studios and proper equipment, we couldn’t just go underground or move abroad. There was no other option but to close down.”
While Istanbul became the first stop for Dozhd, many of the team plan to fly next to Tbilisi, which is fast becoming another refuge of choice for Russians.
Journalists working in Russia had already faced a complex web of repressive tactics by the state, including a law instituted last year labelling many independent media organisations as “foreign agents”, or even worse “undesirable.” The latter essentially places sanctions on news outlets, making their activities inside Russia entirely illegal, including contact with potential sources or networks.
For Groysman, the latest events at Dozhd felt eerily familiar. She was previously a journalist at the investigative outlet Proekt, which was branded as an “undesirable” organisation, and she was personally designated as a “foreign agent”. Shortly after that, Proekt was shut down and the police raided and searched the apartments of some of its staff.
“In the first few hours after Dozhd was blocked, you felt a rush of adrenaline through the office. No one wanted to give up, but deep down, I knew it was over, you can’t win against the system,” Groysman said.
For a long time, Russian journalists have tried to continue operating while playing a constant game of cat and mouse with the authorities. However, the war seems to have killed off any independent journalism.
“Towards the end of last year, most independent media was labelled ‘foreign agents’, but you could still access them,” said Aleksandr Gorbachev, a journalist, film-maker and editor with the independent website Holod, who has also moved to Istanbul. “You could read Meduza, watch Dozhd, Mediazona or the BBC. It was obviously not a great situation, but it was a bearable situation if you wanted to do good journalism.
“Things were obviously getting harder, but you could still do stories about people in Russia and all kinds of things. Covid, local government, just interesting stories about how people live in Russia, which is what we were doing at Holod.
“Since the war started, it’s all become impossible. After the law criminalising ‘fake news’, journalism is basically illegal in Russia now, pure and simple.”
Gorbachev and his wife, a journalist with the BBC, began strategising about leaving Russia as soon as Putin announced the invasion. “It was obvious from that very moment … that our lives would never be the same again,” he said.
Journalists working from abroad are now faced with the challenge of how to report on life inside Russia, particularly around protests or other sensitive stories.
“We don’t know how journalism will be conducted in Russia, but as long as the internet is open and people can use virtual private networks (VPNs), we will get information,” said Gorbachev. “If they switch off the internet completely, then I’m switched off from my mother and brothers and people there. It’s hard to imagine that. We are in uncharted territory. It feels like this madness can’t last long, but at the same time it could last years, we don’t know.”
Russia has already taken steps to isolate itself from the global internet, particularly with the introduction of a “sovereign” internet law in 2019 that expanded state control over internet infrastructure.
Some observers fear that the war will contribute to the Kremlin moving further towards a restrictive, walled-off internet, like that in China.
“It is very important that somehow information continues to flow within Russia, because the only way to change the regime is from within,” said internet policy expert Konstantinos Komaitis.
Not everyone in the industry shared the despair expressed by many Russian journalists.
“I don’t think my work has ever been more important,” said Ilya Shepelin, another former Dozhd journalist who was holidaying in Tbilisi when the invasion began and decided to stay in the Georgian capital.
He now sees his objective as fighting back against the Russian government’s official messaging about its invasion of Ukraine.
“I am not sure I am a journalist any more, in the traditional sense. I call my work counter-propaganda,” said Shepelin, who launched a YouTube show earlier this month. “At some point, Russians will be waking up to the fact that their fridges are empty, regardless of what the television tells them. There will be a moment when they realise the Kremlin has been lying about this war all along. And that is where we come in, ready to tell the truth.”