BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's been just a tick over six months since Russia invaded Ukraine. And over those months, we've read, viewed and listened to reports horrifying and heart wrenching. Stories about resettlement camps in Donetsk. Of airstrikes on hospitals in a theater in Mariupol. Hundreds and hundreds of murdered civilians found and showing signs of torture on the streets of Pucha. This, of course, is not the version of the story shown on Russian media. Those who don't see past the official accounts see a different war. One driven by Putin's virtue, his quest to shield Russian sovereignty and Christian values from the depravity of the West. To mark this grim anniversary. We consider the information war Putin is waging effectively against his own people. That campaign is going far better than the one in Ukraine. First, we turn to journalists in the fight struggling to deliver the facts on the ground to Russians in Russia from abroad. OTM producer Molly Schwartz has the story.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ On the day that Russia launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine, Alec Luhn and Veronika Silchenko headed to downtown Moscow. They took a film crew. They expected to find massive protests.
[AMBI STREET NOISE WITH YELLING].
There were some protesters. There were also lots of riot police.
ALEC LUHN There was filming arrest after arrest after arrest. People were coming out of the metro and unfurling a banner or holding up a sign. And as soon as they did that, even before they could get it all the way unfurled, riot police would have already grabbed them and would be packing them off into a police van.
VERONIKA SILCHENKO It was very easy for them to pick people up.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Alec and Veronika are married. They both work as freelance journalist for Vice. Veronika's from Russia and Alec is from the US. They were filming these protests for a documentary they were making called The Russian Bubble.
ALEC LUHN And all of a sudden a couple of riot police grabbed me from behind and dragged me into a police van, shoved me up against the van, frisked me down and put me in the van. The whole time I was trying to explain that I'm a journalist, I have an accreditation, I have a right to be here.
VERONIKA SILCHENKO I asked for the main commanding officer to get Alec out. He came and did it because they normally don't arrest us. Like it doesn't really happen.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In the past. Alec and Veronika status as foreign correspondents protected them from the kind of government harassment that Russian journalists routinely faced. But then after Russia invaded Crimea eight years ago, and especially in the last six months, things have gotten a lot worse for anyone reporting in Russia.
VERONIKA SILCHENKO Like, the whole atmosphere became worse because they started shutting down Russian media. We could see that the law is changing, that everything is changing on the fly.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the government passed a law against the spreading of so-called "fake news.".
NEWS CLIP Putin has signed a law banning calling the invasion of Ukraine what it is an invasion and a war which is now punishable up to 15 years in prison.
NEWS CLIP The Kremlin today blocked Facebook and Twitter, and there are no independent media outlets left. [END CLIP]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The fallout was immediate. ABC News, CNN, CBS and others temporarily suspended their work in Russia. Reuters and Bloomberg stopped publishing bylines on their articles. Even The New York Times, which has had a reporter in Moscow since 1919 reporting all through the Cold War, announced its departure. For outlets trying to keep their reporters on the ground in Russia. The new laws are a dangerous maze to navigate. I spoke to a foreign journalist who wouldn't speak to me on the record about how they work in Russia, because they said going into detail would be, quote, a gift to the FSB. The crackdown decimated the foreign press, but it also wiped out a whole segment of the Russian press who are now reporting on Russia from outside of Russia.
KIRILL MARTYNOV They can say that journalism in anticipation of war is like a criminal group.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Kirill Martynov is the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta Europe, which launched in Riga, Latvia's capital, in April.
KIRILL MARTYNOV And everyone who helps us is basically a criminal, still.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Like most of his staff, Martynov, used to work at Novaya Gazeta, the biggest, most prestigious independent news source in Russia. For almost 30 years, Novaya Gazeta kept publishing through censorship laws and assassinations of several of their journalists. But then last March, the Russian government forced the paper to close and its journalists to leave the country however they could.
KIRILL MARTYNOV They don't have direct flights to Europe from Russia.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Almost all of Europe had closed its airspace to Russia. So to get to a country that the next door neighbor, Martynov, had to fly halfway around the world through Istanbul.
KIRILL MARTYNOV People travel by bus like it was the 20th century to cross international border.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Riga is Latvia's small capital city. It's become a kind of haven for Russian journalists. They've received humanitarian visas from the Latvian government.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE You go to market to buy some bread or milk and you meet ten people that, you know, this is crazy.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Katerina Kotrikadze is the news director and anchor of TV Rain called Dozhd in Russian.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE I am from Tbilisi, Georgia, originally, and I know what a small city looks like. But this is even smaller because all of us are concentrated.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In the first week of the war. Russia's prosecutor general put pressure on the channel. TV Rain announced they would temporarily halt their operations. And on March 3rd in a dramatic final broadcast, the staff gathered behind the anchors table.
[TV RAIN Anchor speaking in Russian]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ [TRANSLATING] I think friends on this note, we should end our broadcast...
MOLLY SCHWARTZ And no to war. Definitely no to war.
NEWS CLIP Nearly five months after being forced to close down, Russia's last independent TV channel is back on air. [END CLIP]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In July, TV Rain relaunched in exile from Riga.
NEWS CLIP Over the next 2 hours, we will cover the top news of the day. It's a phrase that I haven't uttered in four and a half months. [END CLIP]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Putin's latest assault on the independent press is a market departure from the past.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE It was important to have couple of independent media organizations in Russia to save some kind of connections with the Western world.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Katarina Kotrikadze.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE When they were blaming him for being not Democratic or for human rights violations in Russia. He would always answer, Come on, we have TV Rain, we have independent radio station in Moscow. We have independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. He wanted us to be some kind of show for the Western partners. But after he started this war, it didn't make sense anymore. He didn't want to pretend. He didn't need to pretend anymore.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Since Putin came to power in 2000, 28 Russian journalists have been assassinated and 28 more Russian and Ukrainian journalists are languishing in prison.
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV So our journalists work now from Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany, France, Britain, America, Austria and Portugal.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Roman Dobrokhotov was introduced to me as Russia's greatest ever investigative reporter. He founded The Insider in 2013. A scrappy online outlet that covers things like how Putin was behind the poisoning of his political foe, Alexei Navalny. Then in July of last year, FSB officers showed up at Dobrokhotov's apartment, and at his parent's apartment in the middle of the night.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE They took all the computers, phones and also my passports without any explanations. So I understood that they don't want me to leave the country. That's why I left the country. The next day.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Dobrokhotov managed to get out of Russia without a passport. Crossing the border by foot. Martynov, Kodrikadze, and Dobrokhotov all told me that one of the ways they're able to report on Russia from abroad is by working with a network of shadow journalists who are still in Russia. Kirill Martynov.
KIRILL MARTYNOV They don't have accreditation, they are not a real journalist in terms of Russian law. I don't know how sustainable is it, it's quite dangerous and we don't understand even what kind of problems they can face.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ When they were making their documentary. Foreign correspondents Alec Luhn and Veronika Silchenko knew it would be risky to report on the ground in Russia. But they say it gave them insights that are really hard to get from a distance.
ALEC LUHN For us, the big question since the very first days of the war was what's going to happen when the body bags start coming back?
MOLLY SCHWARTZ He speculated that maybe the invasion of Ukraine would end up being like the disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
ALEC LUHN Where, you know, a bloody invasion poisons the population against the government. And in that case, that contributed, I think, to the decline and fall of the Soviet Union.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In fact, the war in Ukraine has been far deadlier for Russia than Afghanistan ever was. Around 15,000 Russian soldiers died in Afghanistan over the course of a decade. The numbers aren't totally clear yet, but estimates show that around the same number and potentially many, many more Russians have already died fighting in Ukraine in the last six months.
ALEC LUHN Dagestan has the highest casualties of any region. But even there, grieving relatives were suspicious of anyone who question the invasion. [CONTINUES UNDER]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ This is sound from the documentary the couple filmed last May.
ALEC LUHN [LUHN SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Luhn is speaking to a woman whose husband was killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. She tells Luhn that her only hope is that when she leaves this world, she and her husband will spend eternity together.
[WOMAN SPEAKS IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Luhn asks if she knew her husband was in Ukraine.
[LUHN SPEAKING TO WOMAN IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ She says yes. She found out from the news. The widow says they all know what they're fighting for. That her husband died as a hero.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ And NATO poses a real threat to Russia. With every question, the mood in the interview gets a little more uneasy. Then Luhn asks if she thinks the offensive in Ukraine is to defend Russia.
ALEC LUHN [LUHN SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The widow's eyes widened for a second and she asks, Why are you interviewing us?
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE [WOMAN SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Did, the district administration approve this? The widow cuts the interview short and the journalists head out.
ALEC LUHN After the interview, the family called a local official and he ended up putting out a police alert for us. Police questioned us for about 2 hours. They couldn't find anything wrong with our documents, but it was pretty tense there for a while. [END CLIP]
ALEC LUHN When we were first reporting right after the war started, you know, we were reporting on why the protests were so small. And I remember one person who was protesting the war telling me, well, it's not that people are brainwashed, is that people want to be brainwashed. And I think what she meant by that was that it's very difficult in that environment to question the war because everyone, you know, is going along with it. I guess what we learned on this reporting trip to Dagestan was that that's even more true. If you've lost a loved one in the conflict, it's even harder to question the conflict. You can live as a military widow and receive state benefits and be acknowledged and even celebrated in the community. Or you can put your entire family at risk by questioning the war.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The Russian government hasn't been publishing any numbers since March about how many people have died in this war. It's another sign of the tight control they have over what information is circulated. But Silchenko thinks the restrictive new laws could backfire.
VERONIKA SILCHENKO For many years now, the Russian propaganda was so effective also because there were a lot of independent media which existed. So for many Russians who lived in Moscow since Petersburg or big regional cities, they didn't feel that the information was forbidden and they didn't feel the need for information. They didn't feel the craving. But now I think this may create that craving for the alternative information, because even in USSR people were jamming the radio and trying to listen to the BBC Russian service. That's why this service existed. It was kind of for a lot of people a game to see what they are actually saying in the free world. And I think maybe it will happen again. It just will take years to get to that point.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In hindsight, it's clear that the slow strangulation of Russia's independent press was inevitable with the patience of a model KGB officer. Putin began to tighten his grip immediately after taking office, incrementally, suppressing more and more information. Really ramping up attacks on the media in the year before the invasion. Grooming Russian viewers over the past eight years to see Ukrainians as an enemy, as people who persecute ethnic Russians. And the strategy has worked. Now others are copying it. Serbian President Alexander Buzek recently started claiming that ethnic Serbs are being persecuted in Kosovo. It sounds familiar. For On the Media, I'm Molly Schwartz.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the lexicon of Putin's information war. This is On the Media.