Novaya Gazeta reporter on its closure and the future of Russian free press

Novaya Gazeta journalist on Russian independent media and why BBC in Russia is 'not as influential as it could be'

Novaya Gazeta

Russian independent media failed to gain wider public trust in the country because it did not try “to reach those that we don’t know”, according to a journalist at the suspended Nobel Prize-winning newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

The title’s UK correspondent Evgeniya Dillendorf said a similar problem applied to BBC’s service in Russia, which she felt was “not as influential as it could be”.

Novaya Gazeta’s Dmitry Muratov won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for his work leading the newspaper, which is known for its forthright criticism of Russian politics and Vladimir Putin. Muratov dedicated the prize to the six Novaya Gazeta reporters murdered since 2000.

The outlet’s biggest pieces have investigated everything from state involvement in a series of apartment bombings that killed more than 300 people to Russian war crimes in Chechnya and state interference in a nationwide smuggling scandal.

Since the passing in March of a new law criminalising the dissemination of “false information” about the Russian military, including calling the invasion of Ukraine anything other than a “special military operation”, all major independent Russian media outlets have either closed down or been forced to move their base of operations to neighbouring countries.

One of those was Novaya Gazeta, which announced on 28 March in a short statement that it had indefinitely suspended its print and online editions until the end of the “special operation on the territory of Ukraine”.

Dillendorf told Press Gazette: “I hope Novaya Gazeta will return. Having known Dmitry Muratov for decades already he is a fantastic organiser and creator and inspirational person. If there’s even a small chance for the newspaper to be open he will do that.

“I believe Novaya Gazeta has the best team in Russia and they will work together again… But there was sometimes this kind of fashion to be indifferent, to be above the fray, not to interfere… I think that was a great mistake.”

A former press officer for the Yabloko political party, Dillendorf suggested that staff at independent outlets like Novaya Gazeta would shy away from supporting any opposition political parties as they believed the entire political system to be broken.

Dillendorf also said that in the weeks before the newspaper was forced to close, she saw a growing number of her articles being cut by editors in an effort to avoid government censorship, including in one case for mentioning the existence of a banned anti-corruption group.

Several weeks after the start of the war, Ofcom revoked Kremlin-owned TV station RT’s broadcast licence, saying the outlet’s licensee ANO TV Novosti was not “fit and proper to hold a UK broadcast licence”.

[Read more: Reporter reveals why he quit RT after Russia invasion of Ukraine]

Dillendorf said in response: “Britain had every right to do that. Not only because it’s the rules, but also because RT has not just one time but on many occasions violated the tradition of functioning journalism in Great Britain. It’s obvious to everyone that it was not by chance that it was doing that.

“Ofcom was looking thoroughly and for a long period of time at the case and that was the right decision.

“What I regret is that during long years of peace and long years of tightening of screws in Russia, nothing was done in the respect of creating some kind of different vision for Russian people.”

Dillendorf went on to say that many news organisations that were critical of the Kremlin, including the BBC, struggled to reach beyond sympathetic audiences to the wider Russian public.

Dillendorf added: “The Russian service of the BBC, from my point of view, hasn’t been politically indifferent. That’s probably why it’s not as influential as it could be.

“They were not going to try to speak with other people, and that’s the biggest problem with Russian independent media in general. We have not tried to reach those that we don’t know, and so people don’t trust us.”

BBC News saw record audiences for its Russian language content early in the Ukraine invasion – reaching almost 17 million people in the last week of February – although it was blocked by Putin on 4 March. Despite this, it provided advice to Russians on how to access its services on the deep web and launched a Tiktok to reach new audiences.

On 23 March the BBC received £4.1m in emergency funding from the Government to back the expansion of its independent journalism in Russia and Ukraine.

Picture: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

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