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Facing Putin’s wartime censorship, a Nobel laureate fights to keep truth in Russia alive

Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, at a 2015 planning meeting with his editorial board in Moscow. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, editor of the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, convened an emergency staff meeting minutes after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine.

“We are in grief,” Muratov said in a video address after the meeting at the paper’s Moscow headquarters. “Our country, on President Putin’s orders, has started a war with Ukraine, and there is no one to stop the war. Therefore, along with grief, we bear shame.”

Muratov channeled his newsroom’s agony into defiance. “Russia Is Bombing Ukraine” ran in huge letters across the front of the next issue of the newspaper. Stories were printed side-by-side in Russian and Ukrainian. “We do not recognize Ukraine as an enemy or Ukrainian as the language of an enemy,” he said in his video. “And we never will.”

Nearly a month later, that front-page headline is illegal. And Muratov is all but the last man standing between Putin and an independent media in Russia.

The 60-year-old lionheart of Russian journalism has for decades stewarded Novaya Gazeta through harrowing moments, including the murders of its own reporters. Now, as the nation careers toward full-fledged totalitarianism, he faces the possibility of the death of Russian journalism itself.

In the process, Muratov has confronted a choice that has distressed many Nobel laureates who have stared down despotism: whether to cling to the purity of ideals (and shut down the paper) or press on within the constraints of a repressive system (and keep it alive).

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Muratov has chosen the latter. While hundreds of journalists have fled Russia, he is still in Moscow publishing Novaya Gazeta three times a week. But the paper must abide by a new censorship law, signed March 4, that threatens up to 15 years in prison for publishing what Russia calls “fake” news about the country’s military. Among other things, the censorship means Russian media can’t call the war a war — only a “special military operation.”

Novaya Gazeta is technically complying with Russia’s new law, but is far from cowed — relying on visual storytelling, firsthand testimony, transparency about omissions, and implied meaning to convey the horror of the war to a Russian readership that can read between the lines.

“Listen, I am not going to shoot myself in the foot just to walk away from this information battle,” Muratov said in a telephone interview from Moscow. “When the government wants to shut us down, they’ll shut us down. But I am not going to go against the will of our journalists and our readers and turn the lights off here on my own.”

‘Censorship is prohibited’

For most of Russia’s modern history, press freedom has been the exception rather than the norm. But in the 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost — or openness — led to an awakening of critical news coverage that grew more robust after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In 1993, Muratov and a group of other journalists broke off from Komsomolskaya Pravda, once the official organ of the Soviet Union’s Komsomol youth league, to create Novaya Gazeta. To establish the paper, the journalists threw in their own money and received help from Gorbachev, using funds from the former leader’s Nobel Peace Prize to buy computers.

At the time, press freedom in Russia seemed irrevocable. In late 1993, Russians voted to approve their new constitution, which stated clearly, as it still does: “Freedom of the media is guaranteed. Censorship is prohibited.”

Novaya cemented itself as the go-to publication of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia during the heyday of independent journalism in the 1990s. The paper proceeded with pathbreaking investigative coverage, particularly of the war in Chechnya, despite a worsening environment for the nation’s press.

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In the next decade, as Putin wrested control of the nation’s television channels to build a propaganda machine, Novaya faced a different form of pressure. Six members of its staff were killed from 2000 to 2009 — one smashed over the head with a hammer; another poisoned; another kidnapped, her body later found on the side of a road. Star reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building in 2006.

By the time Muratov arrived in Oslo last December to accept his Nobel Peace Prize — as a co-winner with Philippine journalist Maria Ressa — Russia’s independent media was on life support. Putin’s authorities had been labeling many of the best journalists “foreign agents” and forcing them to flee the country.

In his Nobel speech, Muratov warned that Russia’s government was agitating toward war, and said journalists would continue their mission to bear witness. “As governments continually improve the past,” he said, “journalists try to improve the future.”

On Tuesday, Muratov announced that he and the newspaper had decided to auction off his Nobel medal and give the proceeds to Ukrainian refugees.

‘We will continue to work’

By the time Putin invaded Ukraine, reporters and editors at Novaya Gazeta had already held a serious talk about what the paper would do if a war broke out, and the difficulties of wartime conditions — a gut check on who was ready and who wasn’t.

“But up until the final second, we weren’t sure that in an instant they would destroy the lives of an entire future generation of Ukrainians and Russians,” Muratov said. The decision made at that Feb. 24 staff meeting to put out the paper’s first issue in Russian and Ukrainian sought to emphasize “our stance toward the people of Ukraine,” he added.

“It’s impossible to live the same way you lived before when the bombers and artillery of your country are nearby demolishing the cities of a foreign country,” Muratov said.

Within two days, Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, threatened to block Novaya Gazeta and demanded the deletion of “untrue information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the deaths of Ukrainian civilians as a result of Russian Army activities.”

The regulator took aim at the paper and other outlets for calling the special operation an attack, an invasion or a war — and said only official Russian government information should be used.

Muratov publicly shot back that he would rely on the reporting of his own correspondents. He later told the New Yorker in an interview, “We respect the sovereignty of Ukraine — and the sovereignty of Novaya Gazeta.”

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The pressure would only rise. Russian authorities blocked Facebook and pulled the plug at the radio station Echo of Moscow. Police arrested thousands of demonstrators across the country, including ones holding up blank signs. Novaya’s coverage documented scores of Russians being fired from their jobs for expressing opposition to the war.

On March 4, Putin signed the new law on “fake” news. The independent channel TV Rain shut down. Hundreds more journalists fled the country.

It wasn’t clear whether the law would apply retroactively, so Novaya Gazeta quickly removed from its website reporting that could be viewed as a violation and paused operations online, fearing that text posted on the fly could land an editor in prison.

The newspaper convened another emergency meeting. Two possible courses were considered.

“The first was we shut down because it’s objectively impossible to work under the conditions of wartime censorship, and we will open up a lot of our people who produce news to criminal prosecution, because any news can be declared ‘fake,’ ” Muratov said.

“The second,” he continued, “was we write a disclaimer explaining to readers that we are staying to work under wartime conditions, because there is very important information to deliver, but you should understand we are going to have to censor ourselves.”

Muratov turned to the paper’s crowdfunding platform — a group of loyal readers the paper calls its “accomplices” — and took a poll. Of the 7,800 responses, 96 percent told the paper to remain open. The newsroom, he said, received 3,500 letters within 24 hours also asking the paper to keep publishing. In a newsroom poll, 75 percent of employees supported staying open.

“We said we will continue to work,” Muratov said.

A few days later, the paper put out its first edition under the new rules. The front-page headline read, “This edition of Novaya was created in accordance with all the laws of the amended criminal code of Russia.” Under it was an image of four ballerinas performing “Swan Lake” in front of a giant mushroom cloud.

The message was clear. Russian state television famously switched on “Swan Lake” during the 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev, making the ballet a universally understood sign in Russia of the government attempting to hide a crisis.

“Hello everyone, this is the information service of Novaya Gazeta! We promised to learn how to live and write in the grip of military censorship and return. So, we’re back!” Nikita Kondratyev, head of the information service, wrote in a March 16 note to readers on the website.

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He said the website editors had taken a hiatus to learn new standards so as “not to get blocked or end up in prison,” and noted that the editorial staff remained in Russia, so “the risks are, let’s say, higher than usual.”

“Yes, Russian journalism’s last teeth are being ripped out,” Kondratyev wrote. “But it has a wonderful habit of growing new ones.”

Andrei Kolesnikov, an editor at Novaya from 2010 to 2014 who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, credited Muratov with keeping the newspaper alive. “It is largely thanks to his authority that the newspaper has not yet been ‘killed’ by the Kremlin,” Kolesnikov said.

‘I personally saw these bodies’

Since the March 4 law, Novaya has steered clear of using the word “war,” or quoting Ukrainian military officials. “Special operation” always appears in the Russian equivalent of quotation marks. The marking <…> appears in place of the word “war” or other censored content.

One recent story profiled a Russian mother whose young son was sent to Ukraine alongside other conscripts. Another reported on the deaths of Russian soldiers.

In a recent story on civilian deaths in the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, special correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko visited the morgue and found the bodies of two sisters, a 17-year-old and a 3-year-old, piled together in the refrigerator. The orderly explains that he is their godfather and they were brought in on his shift. “Of course I recognized them,” he said. “I cannot tell you what I went through at that moment.”

Photos of the bodies ran with the story. In an accompanying video, Kostyuchenko said on camera: “I personally saw these bodies.”

The paper is transparent about what it is holding back. In the story from Mykolaiv, for example, there are multiple grayed-out passages with descriptions of what is missing. One said: “Here were the words of Ukrainian forces about dead Russian soldiers.” Where Ukrainian military officials speak, their quotes are removed and replaced with <…>.

A blurred-out poster

The decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to honor Muratov late last year divided Russia’s beleaguered and quarrelsome opposition. Some supporters of Alexei Navalny felt the jailed opposition leader should have received the prize, casting him as a pure martyr compared with Muratov.

After Marina Ovsyannikova, an employee at Russia’s flagship state-controlled Channel One, burst onto the set of the evening news on March 14 to protest the war, Novaya’s website posted a screenshot of her but, to abide by the censorship law, it blurred out the entire text of the poster she was carrying.

Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who fled Russia amid pressure on his organization, quickly tweeted that it turned out the “girl from Channel One” was “braver” than Novaya Gazeta. Others piled on, some suggesting the paper should close rather than abide by the new law.

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Muratov said the online team made a mistake by blurring the entire poster. He said it was corrected. In the print edition, where the image ran on the cover alongside the headline “Zombie Box Cracks,” only the two mentions of “war” on the poster were blurred.

“We had a very heated, very heated discussion about this and we acted in accordance with standards,” Muratov said.

He reacts angrily to any suggestion the paper should close on principle in the face of restrictions. He likened it to someone asking him to go shoot himself, expressing disgust with those hurling invective at him while sitting safely abroad.

He said the paper, with a print circulation of 126,000 and about 27.5 million unique website visitors a month, is bringing deeply reported war and economic coverage to grateful readers — who are what matters.

Novaya ran into new pressure when its distributors refused to deliver the issue featuring Ovsyannikova’s poster on the cover to newsstands, fearing liability under the censorship law. Novaya began distributing the paper directly at its office and filmed the horde of readers coming to pick it up.

Some said they were taking it to older readers who aren’t digitally savvy enough to receive news on Telegram or through a virtual private network (VPN) that can access banned websites. Others said they simply trust the paper.

“It’s the only way without a VPN to learn the truth that they are trying so hard to hide from us,” one young man said in the Novaya video.

Russia’s parliament passed legislation Tuesday to expand the censorship law to ban “fake” information not only about the Russian military but a wide range of Russian government agencies. Putin, too, has signaled more repression, calling in a March 16 appearance for a “self-purification” of society and saying the Russian people would distinguish “true patriots” from “scum and traitors” and spit out the latter like a fly that had flown into their mouth.

Muratov, in his Nobel speech, cast a free press as a counteragent for such despotism, likening journalists to dogs that keep the caravan of society moving forward.

“Yes, we growl and bite. Yes, we have sharp teeth and a strong grip,” he said. “But we are the prerequisite for progress. We are the antidote against tyranny.”

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