The Russian government doesn’t create much of an illusion of press freedom. Numerous of the top media organisations, from Russian television channels to the news agency TASS to Russian TV, are controlled by the federal government. Critics of the establishment may face not just censorship but even risk their lives or livelihoods.
This reality is now more apparent than ever since Russia invaded Ukraine. A survey of headlines in Russian news outlets this week reveals not so much what is happening inside the attacking nation, but rather what President Vladimir Putin’s government would like its citizens to believe.
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On Thursday, Roskomnadzor—the federal organization responsible for controlling and censoring the media—issued a statement informing the Russian media “they are obliged to only use information and data they have received from official Russian sources.” The statement also warned that unnamed media outlets have spread “unverified and unreliable information.”
Some opposition publications, such as Novaya Gazeta attempt to counter the narrative, mainstream Russian news outlets have largely fallen into line—even if the results are unlikely to fool discerning Russian readers who have been exposed to roughly 15 years of pro-government propaganda. The resulting stories are as striking for what they omit as what they actually publish; by and large, Russian media minimizes the scale of the attack on Ukraine—describing it in the phrase used by federal officials, as a “military operation” rather than a “war” or “invasion,” the terms much of western media has used—while uncritically reprinting statements from Putin and other government officials.
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Sometimes, Russian news reports have misrepresented what’s happening in Ukraine. For example, an article published in RIA News on Thursday repeated the Russian Defense Ministry’s claims that any statements that Russian aircraft, helicopters, and armored vehicles have been lost are “complete lies,” in contradiction of international reports. The article also claimed that Ukrainian military personnel are leaving their positions “en masse,” and that “Ukrainian border guards do not offer any resistance.” Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, have highlighted stories of guards refusing to stand down.
A U.S. official told TIME that disparaging comments about the Ukrainian armed forces are part of a Russian strategy “to discourage them and induce surrender through disinformation.” The official said, “Our information indicates Russia is creating a disinformation campaign by publicizing false reports about the widespread surrender of Ukrainian troops. Our information also indicates that Russia plans to threaten killing the family members of Ukrainian soldiers if they do not surrender.”
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Russian news reports have minimized the risk to Ukrainian civilians. They often repeat government claims and don’t provide any contradicting information. For instance, many pieces about the invasion repeated the Russian Military of Defense’s claim that it would attack only military targets, and that Ukrainian civilians are not at risk. A TASS article about the evacuation of Ukrainians to neighboring Moldova ends on that note: “As the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defense stated, the Russian military isn’t striking at cities, but only incapacitates military infrastructure, so nothing is threatening the civilian population.” This claim is doubtful from a historical perspective, given that about 3,400 civilians were killed in disputed territories in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2021, according to the United Nations, and a number of civilians have been killed this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said. Interfax, a Russian news agency, repeated a claim made by Putin, that Ukranian forces use civilians as human shields and that neo Nazis place heavy weaponry within residential areas.
The same deference extends to the subject of the war’s justification. News stories and opinion-driven pieces alike have claimed that the Ukrainian government is a “dictatorship” and that the Russian government was left with no choice but to attack Ukraine. (Zelensky was democratically elected in a process the democratic advocacy organization Freedom House describes as “generally competitive and credible.”) The media has also appealed to Russians’ sense of responsibility for Ukraine, which Putin has alleged has no separate identity of its own—contrary to historical evidence—and has drawn connections between the present crisis and WWII, which Russians refer to as the “Great Patriotic War” and is remembered as a moment of national greatness and sacrifice. Insidiously, many news stories have repeated the Russian government’s claim that part of the purpose of the conflict, in the words of Russian press secretary Dmitry Peskov, is the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine. It is impossible to prove that the Ukrainian government endorses Nazi ideology. The claim is even more striking because President Zelensky is Jewish, having lost his family in the Holocaust.
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It is unclear whether the Russian media’s reporting will persuade many Russians who do not feel the conflict was necessary. The New York Times Times reported this week, many Russians believed for some time that the likelihood of their nation’s invading Ukraine was overblown, and their support for the government’s attack has been muted so far. Opposition magazine reports that hundreds of Russians have been arrested in protests against the war. Novaya Gazeta reports.
However, the challenges facing any Russians who hope to turn the political tide against Putin’s regime include this significant obstacle: the absence of a free press.
—Vera Bergengruen reporting