RSF urges European governments to strengthen their support for independent Russian journalism, resilient but weakened by exile – new report

Since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine, between 1,500 to 1,800 Russian journalists were forced into exile. They are resilient but encounter challenges in relocating and running newsrooms abroad, mainly across Europe, according to a report by The Fix, a publication and knowledge hub for media professionals, and the JX Fund, created by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to support journalism in exile.  RSF urges European governments to provide more assistance to independent Russian journalism.

Independent Russian media outlets such as TV Rain, Holod and 7x7 have survived the shock of forced exile, but they and the 90 or so other exile websites and YouTube or Telegram news channels are grappling with many problems, according to the report published on 5 December by the JX Fund, an RSF initiative in partnership with Germany’s Rudolf Augstein and Schöpflin foundations. The report was produced with help from the media research group The Fix.

About 1,500 to 1,800 Russian journalists have fled abroad since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Installed above all in Berlin (Germany) and the capitals of Georgia (Tbilisi) and Latvia (Riga), the exile media have responded to production and dissemination constraints by focusing on YouTube and use of video, on investigative journalism and on covering such subjects as Russian state dysfunction and regional issues.

In terms of audience, the exile media reach 6 to 9% of the adult population in Russia, which the report describes as a “resounding achievement.” Their content is read, listened to or watched by between 2.7 million and 3.9 million people in Russia. Taking social media into account, the figure could be as high as to 7.8 million, the report estimates.

The exile news site Meduza, for which RSF has created “mirror” websites that help it to circumvent Russian censorship, is the most successful independent media outlet. Many of the exile media “continue to operate teams on the ground [in Russia] and produce unique insights at a time when analysis of what is happening in Russia is very scarce,” the report says, adding that “they represent a unique asset for the global community.”

Exile regional media such as Baikal People or Pskovskaya Gubernia, whose journalists are now rather dispersed, continue to play a vital role in covering regional subjects that are difficult for the foreign media to access but whose importance is vital for analysing the Russian domestic situation, the report adds.

Despite this remarkable resilience, the JX Fund warns that the exile media have been encountering a range of difficulties that are financial, security and logistical in nature.

“Faced with Kremlin propaganda, the reporting provided by the Russian media in exile is essential, and their resilience is exemplary. But many obstacles still threaten the survival of this independent Russian journalism. We urge European governments to support it by issuing long-term visas appropriate for journalists, by according them appropriate protection against Russian intelligence agencies operating in Europe, and by providing them with financial support while they consolidate their resources.

Jeanne Cavelier
Head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk

Financial, security and logistic challenges

The primary problem for media in exile has been financial, the report says. Relocating media staff has been expensive. Media budgets have had to increase to cover travel, visa and residency outlays and the higher cost of living in the receiving countries. The average media budget rose by 64% from 2021 to 2022, while their income currently depends mainly on donations.

Relocation has also brought logistical difficulties. These depend on the personal situation of each journalist, including the possibility of dual citizenship, the location of family members and the right to obtain a work visa. As a result, several media outlets have found themselves with their staff members scattered across different countries.

45% of exile journalists threatened

Another major challenge is security. Threats of various kinds hang over 45% of exile journalists. For example, those who fled to Armenia and Kazakhstan have been threatened with the possibility of extradition because of the general mobilisation in Russia. Russian intelligence agencies continue to operate there “with relative impunity.” What with intimidation, cyber-harassment and even murder attempts, journalists are not safe in Europe either. Former Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Kostyuchenko was poisoned in Germany in October 2022.

Russia is classified as one of the world’s worst countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index, in which it is ranked 164th out of 180 countries. Disinformation and propaganda are now produced and circulated on an industrial scale, including in the territories Russia occupies in Ukraine.

Under a law passed on 4 March 2022, freely reported news stories about the Russian army are punishable by 15 years in prison. Most independent media are blocked in Russia and have been branded as “foreign agents,” “undesirable organisations” or “extremist organisations.” Instagram and Facebook have been banned since March 2022, and access to VPNs will be blocked from March 2024 onwards.

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Updated on 07.12.2023