At around 5 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, an email arrived in the inbox of the Zvezda online newspaper in the Ural region city of Perm.
“We didn’t immediately notice Roskomnadzor’s letter,” Zvezda editor-in-chief Stepan Khlopov said, referring to Russia’s media monitoring agency. The message contained an order to remove “prohibited content”, but did not specify the offending material.
“That day there was a demonstration for peace in the center of Perm, as well as in other cities,” he recalls. “I was there myself that day, hosting a live broadcast.
“After a while, my co-workers reported to me that a message had arrived. And shortly after, they told me that the site had been blocked.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the government has forcefully suppressed all forms of anti-war dissent. Roskomnadzor ordered the media not to use words like “war” and “invasion” and to report only information provided by official government sources. New laws against “discrediting the armed forces” by spreading “false information” have been hastily passed, threatening offenders with prison terms of up to 15 years.
One by one, the main independent national media have closed or moved abroad. Independent regional media such as Perm’s online Zvezda were also attacked.
“We are now afraid of everything,” Yaroslav Vlasov, a journalist with the Taiga-Info website in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, said in an interview in March, “because they can come and pick us up for any reason.” .
“The Forbidden Word”
In the case of Zvezda, the precise reason may never be known. Roskomnadzor did not respond to questions asking what material should have been removed.
“But we know what it is. Because on February 24 – the day the ‘special military operation’ started – we issued a statement saying that we would call things by their real names,” Khlopov said. “Most likely they blocked us for having used the forbidden word” — war.
“Just like they banned other sites before us and other sites since,” he added. The site’s page on the Russian social network VK was also suspended.
The Perm newspaper Zvezda was founded in 1917 and in the early post-Soviet period it was one of the flagships of Russia’s nascent independent regional press. But in 2016 — for various political and business reasons, Khlopov said — the newspaper’s ownership changed. The paper edition found its place in the media holding of the governor of the Perm region, while many of the newspaper’s journalists created the Zvezda online outlet.
Led by Khlopov from the start, it quickly gained a reputation for its focus on local news.
“It covers grassroots initiatives, city activists, environmentalists, artists, people reporting,” he said. explained to RFE/RL ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. “Our audience is small but dedicated.
After the site was blocked, the journalists collectively made the decision to compromise. The word “war” was removed from their stories and several photographs of local protests were removed. But that apparently wasn’t enough for Roskomnadzor, as the site remains inaccessible in Russia and the agency has responded to the newspaper’s requests for information with silence. Appeals from the publication have also been ignored by the attorney general’s office, so the journalists are preparing to take their case to court.
“When all of this happened, there was a serious outpouring of support from our readers,” Khlopov said. “So there are only thousands instead of millions, but they know us and appreciate our work.”
The number of subscribers to the website’s Telegram channel has increased about 10 times, he said.
Back to Samizdat
In April, Zvezda staffers came up with a new idea in their attempt to circumvent Kremlin censorship. It was a plan reminiscent of the oppressive decades of the Soviet era, when forms of poetry, prose and journalism banned or subject to state suppression were secretly printed and circulated surreptitiously among friends and colleagues in underground networks – a phenomenon known in Russian as samizdat, or self-publishing.
Zvezda’s collective started publishing a weekly text edition in A4 format on its Telegram channel that could be printed on any printer. In Khlopov’s words, it is a modest effort to bring objective information to readers “poisoned by propaganda.”
“It is impossible to do nothing,” Khlopov said. “We – a single Internet publication – cannot break state propaganda on television and on the Internet. Even everything [independent] Internet media taken together could not.
Faced with this harsh reality, Zvezda staff members “started with the principle that we need to reach out to audiences we hadn’t reached before. At least there is symbolic meaning for people who share our values - that they are not alone and have not been forgotten.
In the Soviet Union, the samizdat edition often led to a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the state. This, too, resonates in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia: In April, at least three people were cited for “discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” for distributing the samizdat version of Zvezda online.
“We didn’t call people to distribute the newspaper,” Khlopov said. “We told them they could print it out and take it home, leave it in a pile with other papers and leaflets. Maybe someone will take a look at it, and something will resonate in their soul or in their head when they watch television.
Nonetheless, he said, the publication feels responsible for those cited for distributing the newspaper, and it will help them with any fines that will be imposed.
Since the site was blocked, Zvezda has lost all advertising revenue. It has cut its expenses to the bone and continues to exist thanks to donations from a businesswoman and local politician from the liberal Yabloko party, Nadezhda Agisheva.
“But nobody knows how long we can continue to exist in this environment,” Khlopov said.
“We have already lost the lion’s share of our independent media, both nationally and regionally,” he said. “And the persecution continues.”