Independent media in Russia: a mission during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a professional test for journalists in many countries: the authorities fear that the public, having learned the real state of affairs from news and explanatory materials, will begin to treat officials more critically, and sometimes society itself does not want to believe that things are bad or on the contrary, that improvement is really possible with self-discipline and mutual assistance.
In Russia, where the independent press had enough problems even before the pandemic, there is an acute issue of honest information from an unbiased source, and this source – independent Russian media, which during the pandemic felt a serious demand for their work.
The Kennan Institute in Washington has invited for the virtual conference the leaders of the Russian media, enjoying authority: the CEO of the Internet publication «Jellyfish» Galina Timchenko, chief editor of the TV channel «Rain» Tikhon Dzyadko and the head of the publication «Project» Roman Badanin.
According to Tikhon Dzyadko, the pandemic affected work «Rain» financially, and from several sides at once: «Subscriptions are helping us survive now as our small ad revenues have dropped critically – by 60-70%: entrepreneurs either do not have the money for this, or they do not see the point in advertising, since they themselves have closed».
«We see two good trends: on the one hand, our audience is growing, and this is because people are eager to get information about the coronavirus and the measures taken by the authorities, and therefore we are doing more news shows than before. On the other hand, the number of our subscribers is growing, because people, especially in the regions, I think, do not trust the official media and are ready to support independent journalism.» – says Tikhon Dzyadko.
«The bad thing is in the current situation, – continues the editor-in-chief. «Rain», – the fact that the money we receive from subscriptions is still less than the money we lost due to the collapse of the advertising market, so we are cutting costs and salaries».
«And soon the number of those who are willing to pay for a subscription will decrease, because people have less and less money even for food, and because nothing happens, nothing changes.» – Tikhon Dzyadko predicts.
Galina Timchenko says that «Jellyfish» felt a surge of interest in competent journalism on the COVID-19 topic while the demand for other topics decreased:
«We see a decrease in audience interest in all topics, except for COVID-19 and the epidemiological situation in Russia. We see a decline in interest in all of our «news games», for which Meduza is known to all infotainment, and, conversely, the growing interest in materials explaining events and phenomena, as well as in reporting. Great interest – to what is happening in the regions, and to «human stories», something personal. People want to better understand statistics, get scientific explanations of what is happening».
Roman Badanin believes that the situation with topics is more complicated – once at a time is not necessary, and if some investigations «Of the project», in particular, about corruption, collect up to half a million views, while others, even those related to the coronavirus, go unnoticed: «Of course the coronavirus – this is the topic that attracts the largest number of readers in Russia, but this does not mean that people have lost interest in other topics. We cannot stop our investigations of corruption and other socially significant topics, but it is important to remain attentive to the coronavirus.».
Grigory Yudin, a professor at the Moscow Higher School of Socio-Economic Sciences, also took part in the discussion, who shared his observations of how government-controlled and independent media operate differently in a pandemic situation:
«The media controlled by the state in Russia, in theory, should have been perfectly prepared to give a full description and justification of the actions of the Russian authorities during a pandemic so that the public understands why certain anti-epidemic measures are being taken – after all, for many years they actually spoke on behalf of the authorities. But precisely at the time when a coherent explanation of the policy of power was required of them, they completely failed.».
The scientist says that the flow of information from those media that are under the control of the authorities is extremely vague: «On some channels, experts say that the pandemic practically did not affect Russia, that this is such a wonderful virus that Russians do not really affect, but it is worth switching to another channel. – and there are filming of intensive care units and ambulances delivering seriously ill patients to hospitals, and the presenters practically yell at the audience: «Stay home if you want to survive!». As a result, people are confused and often do not follow the instructions of the authorities simply because they do not understand them.».
According to Grigory Yudin, «at the same time, those media that view their audience as knowing something and treat it with respect, enjoy great attention and even manage to give the same coherent explanation of the government’s actions, which is absent in the media controlled by the authorities».
Editors and heads of independent media noted the importance of journalists’ self-organization in times of crisis – in particular, the creation more than two months ago on the initiative of «Novaya Gazeta» and its editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov «Syndicate-100», which united the central and regional Russian media.

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According to Tikhon Dzyadko, a successful existence «Syndicate-100» during the last time – «this is a big event for the Russian independent media, and in a good way it is surprising that so far no one has left this syndicate, and no one blames the rest of the members of the syndicate for all sins, as sometimes happens».
«This is a good tool and it works. – for us in Moscow or in Riga (in Riga there is an editorial office «Jellyfish» – D.G.) is a way to find out what is happening in the Urals or Siberia, because the journalists of independent publications from there share with us their publications, which we would have missed if we had no such connection.» – says the chief editor of the TV channel «Rain».
Answering the question of the Russian service «Voices of America» about how during the pandemic the situation has changed with the pressure on free media from the authorities, Galina Timchenko spoke about the incessant nagging and accusations from officials and propagandists:
«The authorities do not get tired of putting pressure on us and persecuting us in every possible way, and even in the days when the situation with the pandemic has become very serious, they continue to blame «Jellyfish» and other media in distribution «false news», so-called «fake news» – for example, just today we were accused of this by the RT channel, while publishing exactly the same news. In this sense, the situation does not change. The State Duma is also putting pressure on us, trying to prevent us from informing our audience about the real situation, and we respond by trying to do our job as best we can. This game in «cat and mouse» continues as in the old days».
General director «Jellyfish» added that those who inform the free media about the real state of affairs fear harassment: «The Russian authorities have accomplices in their abuses. Just as during the elections, for example, teachers who were members of election commissions helped the authorities in falsifying their results, now the heads of health authorities and chief doctors hide real diagnoses, hide the real numbers of deaths from COVID-19. Therefore, people are afraid to tell us about what is happening openly and demand anonymity.».

Independent media in Russia: a mission during COVID-19
  • Danila Galperovich

    Reporter for the Russian Service «Voices of America» in Moscow. Collaborates with «Voice of America» since 2012. For a long time he worked as a correspondent and presenter of programs in the Russian service of the BBC and «Radio Liberty». Specialization – international relations, politics and legislation, human rights.
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