Even before the war in Ukraine, the safety of media professionals in Russia and in exile has been a major concern. We spoke with Galina Timchenko of the Russian media outlet Meduza about her work in exile.
In October 2014, journalist Galina Timchenko launched the cross-platform media project "Meduza" in English and Russian. Reports range from breaking news to extensive feature stories from Russia and the former Soviet Union. The media outlet officially operates from exile, based in Riga, Latvia, and has since been classified by the Russian government as a "foreign agent" and, more recently, as an "organization that threatens the constitution and security of Russia."
DW Akademie: Having to leave Russia, why did you launch Meduza in Riga? Was that an obvious choice?
Riga was more or less an obvious or maybe the only real choice we had. It was clear to us what we were looking for: a country with a decent number of Russian-speaking citizens, so that we could listen and speak in our native tongue. It was in the same time zone. And in 2014, Latvia welcomed us with open arms. The Foreign Ministry helped us with our documents. We were a stellar team that came to a country where there were no other Russian media outlets at that time. Especially then, many Russian media opened branches in London or the States and lost their connection to the language. That is not good for a Russian-speaking audience.
What did the media landscape look like in Russia at the time? Why did you have to move?
In 2013, a massive internal attack began in Russia, specifically on Russian Media. Oddly enough, it began with the dismissal of Svetlana Mironyuk, former editor-in-chief of the news agency RIA Novosti. RIA Novosti ceased to exist in 2013 and became what we know today as Russia Today (RT).
Together with some other leading independent journalists, we pointed at each other: “You are next.” And technically speaking, this is exactly what happened.
And still, what happened to Lenta.ru, where I was editor-in-chief before I had to go, it was like the ground was breaking – it felt like an earthquake. My publisher was called to the Kremlin and asked whether I would be working with the Kremlin or not. How could I say yes? That goes against my principles. So, my publisher answered ‘no’ for me and I knew I had to leave the country and start over. My team and I came to Riga in 2014 with a mission to make media outside of Moscow and turn it into a media outlet that is consumed all over Russia. We have never concealed that we were in Latvia, of course, and people always asked us, “How can you write about Russia when you are in Riga?”
And how can you?
De facto, half of our team was already in Latvia. There were developers, designers, photographers, bosses and the newsroom. Only special editors, correspondents, they were all working from Russia without major problems.
Do you still have correspondents in Russia now?
No, we don’t have any correspondents left in Russia. After the war and especially after the new law in regards to war fakes and propaganda was introduced in March 2022, which promises up to 15 years in prison for publishing information about the state of the Russian army, we got all of them and their families out in two weeks.
What are the biggest troubles you face when it comes to your reporting at the moment?
We face similar problems that we faced as journalists in Russia. First of all, we notice a lack of sources. Sources now face greater risks, they have dried up, you can say, especially after we were branded as foreign agents. We were the first to receive that label!
Most of our sources returned to us though, especially after more and more media outlets got branded as foreign agents. They understood that ‘Roskomnadsor’ didn’t only come after us, but after everyone in Russia. Nowadays it is difficult to produce pieces about and from Russia. We must use proxy-journalism. One person calls someone, a second person goes to places, a third person asks questions and a fourth one keeps an eye on everything and so on.
This mosaic journalism is really hard on us. It takes way longer, three to four times longer than normal, to publish a story and to verify the facts, but we do it. Because being the fastest was never our goal. We are fearful because all independent voices are being muted. It is a systematic phenomenon, but we still manage to operate.
Who is your audience?
Our main audience are Russian speakers. We want them to know that they are not alone and we are with them. But we should not forget that information for the average Russian reader was available with just one click during the last 20 years. In comparison to Belarussians, who learned early on how to evade state censorship by using different tools, the average Russian media consumer is not used to putting effort into getting information.
We started preparing for being blocked in Russia and provided five VPNs for our audience. Two and a half million readers downloaded one of the five options. After two months, we looked at our data and noticed that only 1.5 million of our readers use it, because you have to put more effort into using one: you have to actively turn it on, choose a location where our content isn’t blocked, turn it off when you are ready. In short, it means four to five additional steps that many Russians aren’t used to investing time in when it comes to news.
Also, after almost a year of war, people are just tired of reading bad news. We do everything we can to provide information, but we cannot force people to look at our content.
Do you think that many Russians support that war?
We cannot forget that we have tons of laws and repressions inside Russia when it comes to war. There are many people who are against the war but have to stay and live in Russia. They are forced to find a survival strategy for themselves and they choose the one that doesn’t require fighting back. And no one has the right to hold that against them because the repressive machinery that is Russia is very hard for Westerners to understand.
Many times, I had to answer the question of my Western colleagues, “Why don’t you go to court?” or “Why don’t you protest against it?” And every time I hear the question, I have a mental picture of Medvedev who tells us to go to court as well – mocking us. No one understands the stifling atmosphere of fear in Russia. It is hard to explain to people that the influence and power the Russian security sectors have increased. People are not only beaten up but killed. People are not only thrown into jail but tortured every day. Each day, there are ten new indictments regarding anti-war legislation.
We are important to our audience because no branch of government in Russia works except the Fourth Estate. There is no freedom of speech, but journalists are still alive. And so we have a big public responsibility. There is at least one charge against a Russian journalist each day. Of course, these are just numbers and it’s hard for someone who didn’t grow up in Russia to understand that.
What does your hiring process look like at the moment? What are your hiring criteria for editors?
When it comes to hiring editors, I am very strict about not employing former staff from Russian state media like ‘Pervij Kanal’ or RT. For me, that is just unthinkable, for one simple reason: Russian censorship didn’t start in 2022 or not even in 2014. It started more than 20 years ago – it just reached its “full bloom” eight years ago.
And if a person made a conscious choice at a time without war to go and work for such media outlets, well, what does that tell you about the person? It tells you that their morals are pretty wonky. Of course, we also take a look at their social media profiles.
For me, it is very important that a person doesn’t work for oneself, but for the team. If the main goal is self-promotion, that person is of no interest to me. I know who is behind every story, and it is not just the editor. It is the photographer, the graphic designer, a second editor. There is no single journalist – it is always a team.
Can you see yourself returning to Russia and work in the media sector?
I don’t think that I will ever return to Russia in my lifetime and be able to work independently. The reason for that is simple: the corruption in Russia is everywhere, not just around Putin and his inner circle. As long as this mindset doesn’t change, there is no future for me in Russia. Some of my younger colleagues think differently, though. They still nurture the hope of returning to a better homeland someday.
Some people might think that you are afraid of Putin by leaving. Is this true?
I am definitely not afraid of Putin or his cronies and I never will be. I have never been afraid of bullies, people that make other people’s life a living hell. I actually despise them. What is the point of being afraid?
What suggestions do you have for other media in exile?
Many international organizations try to help media in exile, but on their terms. They try to teach us what real journalism should look like. But we have excellent journalists. What media in exile are missing is basic knowledge about the country where they are in exile, such as financial and technological knowledge and management skills.
Media in exile also need help with media management. That does not only include distribution channels, but also the possibility of experimenting on these channels and it also means knowing how to use a budget responsibly and have judicial knowledge. Because many Russian media outlets migrated after the beginning of the war to the EU, they need knowledge about the tax systems and media law in the respective country.
I also consider technological skills very important, and regarding recent events, having a crisis protocol in place is also crucial. We should also not forget about cyber security and if there are organizations which can help with that, it will be greatly appreciated.
Numerous civil society organizations, including DW Akademie, are protecting media professionals and supporting media and media professionals in exile. In 2022, the German government launched the Hannah Arendt Initiative for this purpose. This network of civil society organizations, with funding from the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, protects and supports endangered journalists from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus in their important work.
Initial projects have included training, regional scholarship programs and exile journalism centers in third countries, as well as corresponding assistance for journalists working in exile in Germany. More information can be found on the Hannah Arendt Initiative website.