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The Day Foreign Journalists Felt Forced to Leave Moscow


The weekend of March 5th, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Moscow’s foreign correspondents to a meeting. On Friday, the Russian government had passed a restrictive media law that criminalized “deliberately false” information about the military and any reference in the press calling Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a war. Breaking the law risked a penalty of up to fifteen years in prison. Some Western journalists interpreted this to mean that the law would only be applied to Russian nationals. “We didn’t think the law was about us,” one veteran Russia correspondent said. “But nobody wants to be the first foreign correspondent who was arrested because of this law.”

In Moscow, there had also been a sense that the Russian government benefitted from the presence of foreign journalists. Michael Slackman, the assistant managing editor for the Times’ international coverage and a former Moscow correspondent for Newsday, pointed out that the paper had remained in the country throughout the reign of Stalin and the entirety of the Cold War. “Typically there is an understanding that having independent journalists on the ground, if nothing else, is a degree of legitimacy internationally,” Slackman told me. “It allows people to understand your story and your side and your culture and your way of thinking.”

Around a dozen journalists affiliated with Western news outlets attended the meeting. Many of them expected that the Foreign Ministry would offer assurances that foreign journalists would be treated differently than their Russian counterparts. Instead, they were reprimanded. A number of organizations had announced a work stoppage following the passage of the March 4th law. According to people with knowledge of the meeting, a ministry spokeswoman suggested that any journalists who felt that they couldn’t report in Russia under the new law might as well leave the country. She offered a transphobic explanation for the logic behind mandating that the war in Ukraine not be called a war. In the West, she said, if a man decides that he wants to be a woman, everyone is expected to call him a woman. So over here, we expect people to call it a special operation. “I think that’s the moment when a lot of people decided that more than a legal decision, it was a political situation,” the veteran correspondent, who is no longer in Russia, told me. “And they just had to get out of the country.”

Dozens of foreign correspondents, many of whom are American and British, have now left Russia—perhaps a third of foreign outlets, according to one person’s estimate. Those who have stayed behind to report do so under the constraints of the law, which essentially forbids off-the-record or background reporting, since only official sources are allowed. Some outlets, including Bloomberg and Reuters, have removed bylines and datelines from reports. One Western correspondent who has stayed described conditions of pervasive stress: “All of a sudden, I woke up at like four or five every morning for no reason.”

The BBC and Sky News have continued to broadcast televised reports out of Russia. Steve Rosenberg of the BBC still does man-on-the-street dispatches. The reports carefully avoid calling the war in Ukraine a war, though Rosenberg prominently features Russians who oppose it. One of his recent stories showed the funeral of a Russian soldier. “How many Russian soldiers have been killed in what the Kremlin still refuses to call a war?” Rosenberg narrates over images of a family grieving around a coffin. “It’s a criminal offense in Russia to quote anything but official figures, and those are: four hundred and ninety-eight Russian servicemen dead. That was on March the 2nd. There has been no update for two weeks.” On March 8th, the day the Times announced it had moved its staff out of Russia—a move for which Slackman said there was no precedent—Rosenberg posted a video of himself playing the piano. “I’ve written a piece of music and called it Isolation. It’s how I’m feeling right now.”

The situation is potentially worse for Russian journalists. When I spoke with Maria Baronova, it had been a week since the media law passed and she had quit her job as the managing editor of RT—a state-controlled television station—in protest of the war. She hadn’t left her apartment much, she said, describing a generalized ennui spiked with a fear of nuclear war. When Baranova called her psychotherapist, whom she talks to every Friday morning via Zoom, to say she really wasn’t up to their session that day, he’d replied that, honestly, he wasn’t, either. Most of her journalist friends were on their way to Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Washington, D.C., but Baranova isn’t leaving Russia—her son lives here and her ex-husband wants to stay. Besides, she said, “being Russian in a modern world will be quite tricky—we are Germans now, in 1939.” I asked whether she felt any fear for her personal safety after being so public about opposing the war. “If I just stop speaking, I will stop being myself,” she said. “Yes, of course, it’s quite dangerous. It’s given me a lot of panic attacks.”

The information environment has changed quickly in Russia over the past couple of weeks. Twitter and Facebook are blocked, and the government recently declared Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, Meta, an “extremist” organization. Andrei Soldatov, a journalist who covers Russia’s security services and surveillance practices, reasoned that the Russian government hasn’t cut off access to services such as YouTube and Telegram—a messaging app that’s popular in Russia and Ukraine—because the Kremlin still sees some advantage in them. “They still think that they can use the platforms for spreading their message,” Soldatov said. “They are losing the disinformation war, to be honest, completely, to the Ukrainians.” After clicking on a few Russian YouTube influencer pages, my own YouTube explore page started featuring videos such as “Russia’s New Reality,” “Our life in Russia under sanctions,” and “Russian Mall in St. Petersburg (2 weeks after sanctions).” None were particularly positive for the Kremlin point of view.

Nataliya Vasilyeva, the Moscow correspondent for the Telegraph, had booked a ticket to Tbilisi for Friday, March 4th. According to a quick Google search, the city was a place where she could open a bank account, something that seemed prudent in the face of crippling Western sanctions. But she also booked return tickets; her family, friends, and the book-filled apartment she bought and redecorated a few years ago were all in Moscow. The day before she was scheduled to fly, she went to a regular off-the-record breakfast with the British Ambassador to Russia. Vasilyeva was the only Russian national in attendance. Other journalists in the room urged her to change her tickets and leave the country immediately.

Vasilyeva ultimately travelled to London, where she is surviving on a friend’s credit card and living out of a suitcase. The job of reporting on Russia from a distance has proved trying. She’s relying heavily on phone calls and Telegram messages and trying to keep tabs on what regular Russians are being exposed to. “It’s a bit funny being on this side of the Iron Curtain,” Vasilyeva said. “All of the Russian state media are blocked here.” She’s holding out hope that a return to Moscow could come sooner rather than later. But everything is in limbo. “ ‘​​Long-term plans’ is an expression I haven’t heard from anyone since the 24th of February,” Vasilyeva said. “It just doesn’t exist.”





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