The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin’s war threatens free expression — in Ukraine, Russia and beyond

Journalists work near damaged buildings hit in a military strike, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Kyiv on March 23. REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko (Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters)
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War is hell for everyone involved. Its calamitous effects cut across every industry and aspect of life — including journalism. Once again, we’re seeing that heartbreaking reality play out around the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The war has created a crisis for both Russian and Ukrainian journalists, many of whom have been forced to flee their home countries from very different types of danger. The obvious risks to their lives and freedom constitute just the latest blow to global press freedom in an era that has seen many.

The immediate impact of the violence has been devastating on local and international correspondents covering the war. At least five journalists were killed in Ukraine in March, the first full month of the conflict, including American documentary filmmaker and correspondent Brent Renaud, and Oleksandra Kuvshynova and Pierre Zakrzewski, both of whom were working with Fox News. Many others have been injured. The targeting of civilian neighborhoods by Russian forces is adding to the already unpredictable nature of covering an armed conflict.

Meanwhile, in Russia, the very act of speaking the truth about this war threatens one’s life and liberty. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s antagonism toward free expression, especially of the kind that is critical of him, is long-established. Journalists and dissidents who have dared speak out against him at home or even abroad have paid a steep price.

This has never been more clearly on display than in the limitations on coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. Even calling it a “war” in news reports can carry a 15-year prison sentence. These conditions, unsurprisingly, have led to the mass exodus of foreign and domestic journalists.

With economic sanctions decimating Russia’s economy and few signs that Ukrainian forces intend to acquiesce to his demands, Putin likely considers the curtailing of independent media a success — perhaps one of the few aspects of this war that is working in his favor. While journalists in exile are often able to contribute essential context to reports of societies in crisis, time and distance make it nearly impossible to tell more granular stories.

The Post's View: Putin’s impatience with free speech veers toward totalitarianism

I have intimate experience with this phenomenon, as a former member of the ever-shrinking Tehran-based press corps. When one journalist is targeted, everyone hopes it is an anomaly. Then it happens again and again, until old colleagues become scattered around the world, and those who remain are either compromised by allegiances to the state or too afraid to continue their dogged reporting.

The void that’s left behind is often filled with disinformation, to the detriment of people living in these societies and those around the world who are trying to understand them. Inside Russia, the official narrative is that the invasion was somehow a necessary act of defense. As absurd as the world knows that to be, many Russians do not doubt Putin’s intentions, in part because of the narrative pushed by state-run media.

Putin’s attacks on the free press won’t only have an impact in the region. His efforts come in a volatile moment, as democracy and authoritarianism find themselves once again in competition as models of governance for the world. An alarming number of states already have positions on the media that mirror Moscow’s. If recent trends are an indication, Putin’s current campaign against open discussion will only accelerate these patterns in other countries.

More and more democratic societies with formerly vibrant media landscapes are inching closer toward closed ones dominated by state-run outlets, under leaders with authoritarian tendencies rooted in ethnic, religious or nationalist dogma. In countries such as Turkey and India, which maintain ties with both Russia and the West, tactics to attack or suppress independent media are already being used, while the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte has also routinely targeted and attempted to silence independent voices. Moreover, governments around the world are increasingly using alleged threats to national security as pretexts to shut down public discourse. Allowing Putin to succeed in eliminating free expression in Russia and Ukraine would embolden such forces.

As Putin’s war on Ukraine continues, destroying communities, taking lives and displacing millions, it’s more vital than ever that journalists have the support and protections needed to document events. This conflict has put the ideal of a free press under renewed threat — and could have disastrous effects for the world in the process.

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