West seeks to break through Russia’s digital iron curtain

As Russian forces besiege Ukrainian cities and Russian atrocities continue to escalate, including a Friday missile strike targeting fleeing refugees in eastern Ukraine that killed at least 30 people, the Kremlin is leading an information war on the home front as he seeks to control the narrative of his invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

The last remaining independent Russian media in the country have been forced into closure or exile and much of the foreign press decamped abroad as a new law signed last month effectively criminalized reporting on the conflict, prohibiting the use of the words “war” or “invasion”. .”

As a digital iron curtain descends on Russia, Western governments and free press advocates are scrambling to find ways to break through it and reach average Russians with accurate reporting on the war – according to methods that range from creative to high-tech to obsolete.

As Russian forces besiege Ukrainian cities and Russian atrocities continue to escalate, including a Friday missile strike targeting fleeing refugees in eastern Ukraine that killed at least 30 people, the Kremlin is leading an information war on the home front as he seeks to control the narrative of his invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

The last remaining independent Russian media in the country have been forced into closure or exile and much of the foreign press decamped abroad as a new law signed last month effectively criminalized reporting on the conflict, prohibiting the use of the words “war” or “invasion”. .”

As a digital iron curtain descends on Russia, Western governments and free press advocates are scrambling to find ways to break through it and reach average Russians with accurate reporting on the war – according to methods that range from creative to high-tech to obsolete.

Major Western media publish their stories on Telegram, a popular messaging app in Russia that has not been banned. Free media advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders has set up a system allowing Russians to access independent information if they enter Russia’s ever-changing national lottery numbers into Twitter’s search bar, a move which redirects them to mirror news sites blocked by the Russian government.

Some U.S. broadcast officials are even pushing to revive Cold War-era radio infrastructure to bring U.S.-funded media, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to Russia for all the Russians equipped with short wave radios.

We will continue, as we have always done, to share the truth with the Russian people, using all the tools at our disposal to help them understand the truth about what their government is doing, allegedly in their name.” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a press briefing last week.

This effort is made more urgent by the fact that Russian journalists are fleeing the country in droves amid the Russian government’s sweeping crackdown on dissent and protests. More … than 150 Russian journalists left the country, according to the independent news site Agentstvo, fearing they would be targeted by new Russian laws which provide for up to 15 years in prison for spreading “false” information about the Russian military.

In practice, the laws would likely apply to journalists reporting factual coverage of the war, where the Russian advance into northern Ukraine has all but disintegrated in the face of poor military training and fierce resistance from Ukrainians understaffed and under arms. While the country’s last independent news sites are blocked or forced to suspend operations entirely, many are now trying to figure out how to continue their operations in exile from abroad.

“As long as there is social media available in Russia, whether independent journalists are inside or outside Russia doesn’t make a big difference,” said Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy, which supports independent Russian-language journalism throughout the region. “It might even be easier for them to function because you have a more welcoming and stable environment,” she said. One of the most successful independent media sites in Russia, Medouza, has been based in Latvia since its launch in 2014.

Although state television has long been the primary source of news for most Russians, a handful of news sites and broadcasters continue to provide independent reporting and investigation despite routine threats and harassment from the part of the authorities. Foreign media have done their job largely unhindered.

“When I left Russia, you still had a number of strongholds of free press,” said Mikko Hautala, Finland’s ambassador to the United States, who previously served as ambassador to Russia until 2020. They weren’t widely read, but they were of high quality. They were really critical, but now they’ve all but been lost.

Many Russians have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent internet blocks. Data shared with Foreign Police by analytics firm Apptopia revealed that in January, daily downloads of the most popular VPN apps in Russia averaged around 15,000. That number jumped to just over 400,000 after the start of the war. (Twelve of the top 20 most downloaded apps in Russia last month were VPNs, according to fast business.)

Unlike China, where the construction of the “great firewall” by government censorship watchdogs has largely followed the development of the internet, Russian authorities have been slow to crack down on the internet. As a result, a thriving “digital rights and internet freedom community” has taken root, said Nat Kretchun, senior vice president of programs at the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit organization authorized and funded by the Congress that supports internet freedom worldwide.

In recent years, the Kremlin has relied on the legal harassment of a handful of social media users and activists, hoping to encourage others to censor themselves, rather than block websites in mass. All that changed after the war started. “Following the invasion, there was a rapid rise in technical censorship,” Kretchun said.

In the weeks following the invasion, Russia blocked access to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as several leading independent Russian news sites, including Meduza and Mediazona. The BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) were also blocked by Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor, which claimed they were broadcasting false information about the war.

However, after decades of uncensored web access, Russian netizens have noticed the difference. “In China, you have to find a way to tell people that such content exists, and then they try to access it. In Russia, they suddenly can’t access content that was available to them yesterday,” Kretchun said.

Despite Moscow’s efforts to block access to RFE/RL, the site reported a significant increase in traffic to its website, according to data shared with Foreign Police. In the first four weeks of the war, views of RFE/RL’s YouTube videos more than tripled while the number of unique visitors to the broadcaster’s website increased by 40%.

“Our numbers are still at much higher levels than they were before the war, even with the lockdown, and that just shows there is extreme interest in war coverage,” Jamie Fly said. , president of RFE/RL. Similarly in Belarus, where RFE/RL has been branded an “extremist organisation”, views on YouTube have quadrupled since the start of the war.

To circumvent digital blocking, RFE/RL, which is funded by Congress through the US Global Media Agency, has set up “mirror” versions of all of its websites – complete copies of sites hosted at different URLs – and offers a series of applications available for download with integrated VPNs. They also provide audiences with instructions on where to go and how to access their content using anti-censorship technologies.

Despite the banning of other social media sites, YouTube and Telegram, two of the platforms most used by independent media to distribute their content, continue to operate. “The biggest question is how far can Russia go to control the internet, and it looks like they don’t have a replacement for YouTube right now,” said Lanskoy of the National Endowment for Democracy. It’s unclear how long YouTube’s grace period in Russia will last. On Thursday, Russia’s media regulator accused the platform of spreading fake news and announced plans to ban advertising on the video-sharing site.

A European diplomat said the question of how to bring independent information into Russia amid the crackdown had been the subject of discussions between the United States and its allies in Europe. In March, the UK government announced a £4.1m (or $5.3m) funding boost to the BBC World Service to support its Ukrainian and Russian language services, as well as help counter misinformation. Russian on the war. During World War II, the BBC continued to broadcast in Nazi-occupied Europe.

“In scenes reminiscent of 80 years ago, the BBC will ensure that audiences across the region can continue to access independent information in the face of systemic propaganda from a dictator waging war on European soil,” said said UK Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. “It is vital that we lift the veil and expose the barbaric actions of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s forces.

Lance B. Holton