In the wake of Russia’s crackdown on news coverage and the imposition of a new law criminalizing reporting that accurately characterizes the Ukrainian invasion, some international news outlets have taken to technology to circumvent the news blackout, pointing readers to VPNs (virtual private networks), the encrypted Tor browser and even old-fashioned radio.
As war in Ukraine escalates, sending over a million people fleeing and bringing terror to numerous cities, media outlets including the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) have been blocked by the Kremlin, along with several Ukrainian sites, Twitter and Facebook. The Russian government has alleged that the sites were providing false news about the war.
But some outlets are refusing to be silenced. In response to the ban, the BBC posted a statement on its website that said, “Access to accurate, independent information is a fundamental human right which should not be denied to the people of Russia.” It attached instructions on how to circumvent the media blackout by accessing BBC content through two apps: Psiphon, a censorship circumvention tool, and Tor, an anonymous browser. Voice of America also vowed, in a statement, to “promote and support tools and resources that will allow our audiences to bypass any blocking efforts imposed on our sites in Russia.”
Since the invasion, VOA’s Russian-language site has seen a major increase in traffic, according to Matthew Baise, director of digital strategy and audience development at VOA, rising from 40,000 visits per day to around 250,000, with about 20 percent of that traffic coming through circumvention networks such as VPNs. Patrick Boehler, head of digital strategy at RFE/RL, tweeted last week that data from CrowdTangle showed that independent, Russian-language news stories were being shared, worldwide, more often than stories from state-run media.
The media blockade is an attempt to control the narrative around the invasion, which the Russian government and state media have insisted on referring to as a “special military operation.” But there are workarounds.
VPNs can help users circumvent Internet restrictions and are already widely used in China — where Internet access has long been restricted by a “Great Firewall,” blocking Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, The Washington Post and other Western media sites. In a post on its website Saturday, RFE/RL directed people to nthLink, a free VPN service supported by the Open Technology Fund. RFE also provided a link to its website on the Tor browser, which allows users to search the Web anonymously, and encouraged people to join its channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging platform that Russia tried to ban in 2018.
In a tweet on Friday (and a post on its website), the BBC pointed readers to Psiphon, a free, open-source app created by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Alternately, it directed people to access BBC’s website via the Tor app, widely used during the Arab Spring of the early 2010s to access blocked social media sites. For anyone unable to download either app — given Russia’s crackdown — the BBC invited people to send a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com to receive a safe link.
Circumventing censorship is sometimes low-tech. In China, social media users have taken to posting upside-down screenshots of articles on platforms such as Weibo (akin to Twitter). Russian readers still have access to RFE/RL’s newsletter “The Week In Russia,” for instance, because email has not been restricted. The BBC announced Wednesday that it would use shortwave radio, a technology used during the Cold War, to broadcast four hours of news each day in Ukraine and parts of Russia.
The blockade of Western media comes amid a week of increased restrictions: Russia shut down many of its own independent media outlets, including Echo Moscow, TV Rain and Meduza. Some journalists have fled the country.
CNN announced Friday that it had stopped broadcasting its programs in Russia. CBS and ABC said they would no longer put their Russia correspondents on air. And the BBC announced that it would halt its journalists’ work in Russia for the time being. “We are not prepared to expose them to the risk of criminal prosecution simply for doing their jobs,” a statement said.
In a related move, a spokeswoman from The Washington Post said that the publication would remove some bylines and datelines from certain stories, to “help protect our Moscow-based journalists,” while the organization seeks “clarity about whether Russia’s new restrictions will apply to international news organizations.”
RFE/RL, which operates in 23 countries, has a history of reporting in tightly controlled media environments and has led digital-literacy campaigns in several countries. An RFE/RL employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on behalf of the organization, told The Post that the organization had shown people in Afghanistan how to wipe information from their phones in case they were stopped at Taliban checkpoints, and had taught Ukrainians how to use VPNs.
In Russia, RFE/RL has set up multiple mechanisms to evade censorship. Its mobile app has censorship-circumvention tools built into it, and the organization has made mirror websites that reproduce whatever is on the official homepage. If the state blocks one mirror site, it’s easy to make another. “It’s like this cat-and-mouse game,” the staffer said. “But we’re just a very, very fast mouse.”
Paul Farhi contributed to this report.