Putin bans media from using the term ‘war’ to describe its assault on Ukraine

Russian president pulls plug on remaining two independent broadcasters. The result is a criminalization of the truth



March 3, 2022 - 9:38 AM

Anastasia Vakulenko, left, consoles Natalya Chikonova, right, as she breaks down talking about her worries and the war that is raging above ground, while they seek shelter underground in a subway station on the seventh day of the Russian invasion, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)

The news inside Russia has been grim. For protesting against the war in Ukraine, 7,032 Russians are in detention. Long lines are forming at ATMs for cash. Europe and the United States are closing skies to Russian flights. The stock market is closed. Much of the world has condemned the war. And now President Vladimir Putin is pulling the plug on independent news so that Russians will not hear about any of it.

On Tuesday evening, the Russian censor, Roskomnadzor, acting at the orders of the Russian prosecutor-general’s office, blocked the two largest remaining independent broadcasters in the country: radio station Echo of Moscow and Dozhd television. The prosecutor claimed they disseminated information that “calls for extremist activities, violence, and premeditated false information about the Russian military personnel’s special operation” in Ukraine. But what it really means is that Mr. Putin’s regime has criminalized the truth, and does not want Russians to know it.

Mr. Putin’s two decades in office have brought gradual but relentless destruction of civil society, including the press and nongovernmental groups such as Memorial. But Echo of Moscow remained on the air and independent when other news media channels fell under state control, perhaps because the station was a place for liberals to let off steam. The radio station, founded by Moscow city democrats in 1990, played a key role in resisting the coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. Thrown off the air four times in three days, Echo of Moscow managed to get back on each time, and its broadcasts stirred hope the coup would fail, which it did. Over the years, Echo of Moscow ownership was brought under the control of the state natural gas monopoly Gazprom, but it maintained its independence and hosted popular and outspoken commentators. Dozhd, or TV Rain, was launched in 2010 and gained a devoted audience for its vigorous coverage of the anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012. The channel was eventually forced off cable but survived online.

After Echo of Moscow went silent on Tuesday evening, the station’s vital YouTube channel also went dark. 

The outlook for the Russian news media is bleak. They have been ordered not to use the word “war” in their reports, but instead “special military operation in Ukraine.” Dozhd chief editor Tikhon Dzyadko said he left Russia, fearing for his safety.

The jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, writing on Twitter from his cell on Wednesday, implored Russians not to become “a nation of frightened silent people. Of cowards who pretend not to notice the aggressive war against Ukraine unleashed by our obviously insane czar.” Mr. Navalny called on the public to take to the streets in protest. “Everything has a price, and now, in the spring of 2022, we must pay this price. There’s no one to do it for us. Let’s not ‘be against the war.’ Let’s fight against the war.” Mr. Putin has not extinguished critical voices. Not yet.