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Jul 9, 2023, 9:30pm EDT
media

Russian journalists settle into exile

Daria Kalashnikova / Media Hub Riga
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The News

RIGA — Here are some of the things Russian journalists living in exile here in the Latvian capital know they can’t do:

They can’t go home. They can’t get Ukrainian visas to report from the front of the war. They can’t easily take payment from subscribers in Russia, due to sanctions. The stringers who send them videos from inside Russia can’t show their faces, which is a killer for TikTok. And most of all they can’t express self-pity — nobody wants to hear it from Russians.

“It’s a pretty interesting experience during the war time,” Latvia’s new president, Edgars Rinkēvičs, who had been instrumental in issuing hundreds of visas to Russian journalists as foreign minister but has been publicly cool to the journalists, said in an interview last week. “Emotions are running high in Latvian society after seeing many atrocities committed by the Russian troops in Ukraine.”

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Outlets from the Russian services of the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Deutsche Welle to key Russian voices TV Rain and a European edition of Novaya Gazeta moved here to join the online outlet Meduza, which has been based in Latvia for nearly a decade.

But a turning point came in December, when a presenter on the highest profile of them, TV Rain, suggested viewers send help to Russian conscripts on the front. The station apologized and fired him in the face of a backlash from its viewers, but a right-leaning Latvian regulator stripped the station’s license, calling it a threat to national security. A court upheld that ruling last week.

“What would be just a minor issue five years ago or three years ago, is considered completely different,” Rinkēvičs said, calling the ruling “correct.”

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The exiled Russian outlets publish into Russia’s strangely porous media ecosystem, where some websites are blocked but millions still follow independent media through Telegram and, for now, YouTube.

And cooling Latvian postures toward the Russian journalists infuriates their allies, including Sabine Sile, the creator of Media Hub Riga, where many of them work.

“If Putin hates them so much, that means that what they do works against him,” she said. “It’s not in our interest to have another North Korea.”

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I got to Riga expecting the beginnings of an exodus. And in fact, TV Rain, whose travails were at the center of a recent, powerfully gloomy piece by the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, was working on shipping its studio set to Amsterdam.

But TV Rain, so far, is an outlier. Many other Russian journalists say they plan to stay, and the international organizations are settling in. Riga seems likely to remain what it has ambivalently become: a key hub for telling one of the most important stories in the world.

“Russian media is one of the most successful parts of what remains of Russian society,” said Kirill Martynov, the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta Evropa, whose former colleagues faced a brutal attack in Chechnya last week.

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Ben’s view

The new mission for a journalistic community that reported heroically through the closing aperture is captured in a new book by a former TV Rain star, Mikhail Zygar. “War and Punishment” is a kind of “People’s History of the United States” or 1619 Project but aimed at curing the “disease” of “nationalist history,” of Russian nationalism, rather than gauzy American historiography.

The outlets in Riga are settling into this strange new world with a range of resignation and optimism. They were invaluable sources for reading the tea leaves of the Prigozhin mutiny, sharing videos on Telegram and conducting man-on-the-street interviews from Rostov-on-Don.

But the long-term prospects are unclear. The Russian government has experimented with escalating blocks of the internet, and journalists are split on whether their ability to reach into Moscow through Telegram, YouTube, and even Gmail might narrow as the government pushes users toward local services like Yandex and Vkontakte. The trend toward the national control of the internet can be felt from Latvia to the United States, where legislators have sought to ban TikTok and pornography; Russia has the tight Chinese censorship as a model.

Meanwhile, even more bylines have started turning up in the English-language press, from Milana Mazaeva in the New York Times to the FT’s Anastasia Stognei.

Others, though, are settling in for the long haul. Martynov has been reading up the Russian media in exile after the Bolshevik revolution. The most important outlet, Segodnya, was published in Riga from 1919 until the Soviets took the country over in 1940.

He likes to quote a modified version of a favorite line from Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev: “‘In days of doubt, in days of dreary musings on our country’s fate, thou alone art my stay and support, mighty, true, free Russian language Riga Airport.

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The View From TV Rain

TV Rain’s editor in chief, Tikhon Dzyadko, said he remains “grateful” to the Lativan government for taking the station in, though he considers the court ruling “insane.”

And he said moving would be bittersweet. When he goes downstairs from his office in Riga to smoke, people on the street often recognize him. In Amsterdam, TV Rain will be anonymous.

“We’ll be one of many exiled projects — Iranian television, Syrian television, Afghan television,” he said.

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Notable

  • “Our short-term goal is to not let those who are inside and opposed to the war lose their minds,” Denis Kamalyagin, the editor of Pskovskaya Guberniya, a regional outlet now publishing from Riga, told Gessen.
  • Sile “helped exiled reporters with relocation costs, immigration requirements, mental health needs, and legal representation,” CJR noted.
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