NewsDocumentary exposes Russian media's struggle amid war censorship

Documentary exposes Russian media's struggle amid war censorship

"Nowaja Gazieta" is one of the independent editorial offices that had to suspend its activities in Russia
"Nowaja Gazieta" is one of the independent editorial offices that had to suspend its activities in Russia
Images source: © Press materials

7:52 AM EDT, June 3, 2024

When your country starts a war but deceives its citizens with a narrative of a "special operation against fascists," access to reliable information becomes invaluable. Russia quickly attempted to suppress independent media, unfortunately, with considerable success. This is illustrated by the documentary "Of Caravan and Dogs," the 64th Krakow Film Festival winner.

"I can show you how we censor our own materials," says one of the editors of "Novaya Gazeta" to the camera. The introduction of an internal censorship department became necessary when, on February 24, 2022, Putin's troops invaded Ukraine, and a ban on using the word "war" prevailed in the Russian media.

The editorial offices of Echo of Moscow, "Novaya Gazeta," and TV Rain were ordered by the state censor Roskomnadzor to remove their initial publications about the war under the threat of a 6 million ruble fine and loss of license. A dangerous game began to see how reliably one could report on actions in Ukraine without mentioning bombings, shellings, and casualties among the occupied. The chances were slim from the start, and those who tried had their wings quickly clipped.

On the ninth day of the war, the Duma passed a law imposing criminal liability for transmitting false information about the "special operation in Ukraine." Previously, journalists critical of the government could be labeled as "foreign agents"; now, for straightforwardly reporting what Putin's troops are doing, they face 10 years in prison, and their editorial offices risk being labeled "extremist organizations." One such organization is Memorial Association, the oldest organization in Russia studying Stalin's crimes and political repressions during the USSR era. In the film, we see their headquarters being ransacked, with archival documents and all electronic equipment taken away.

Captured by Askold Kurov and a Russian director hiding his identity, editorial meetings show the gap between the Hollywood notion of fighting for freedom of speech and the brutal reality. Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of "Novaya Gazeta," openly asks his colleagues if they see the point in continuing their work under the obligation of self-censorship. Some advocate a temporary cessation of activities, while others suggest ways to avoid sensitive topics and focus on the economy and culture. Some leave and go abroad.

Members of the editorial board of "Nowaja Gazieta"
Members of the editorial board of "Nowaja Gazieta"© Press materials

Although cinema about journalism has always had the power to chart a moral path toward truth, "Of Caravan and Dogs" reveals that it's not just about ideals but about the real state of the human condition. To understand this, one can compare this film with another title from the 64th Krakow Film Festival - "Intercepted" by Oksana Karpowicz. This documentary was based on 30 hours of recordings of telephone conversations between Russian soldiers on the front and their families, intercepted by Ukrainian special services.

- Nastia, sunshine, you know I can just take someone and shoot them in the head: "bang!" Without remorse, I could now slaughter a hundred people just like that. I'm not afraid to do it - this is one example of cruel dehumanization, killing in the name of propaganda, and deep belief in the righteousness of their actions. The effect of years of feeding Russian citizens false narratives, among others, through government media.

The winner of the Krakow festival begins and ends with Nobel speeches delivered by different people a year apart. 138 days before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of "Novaya Gazeta," while receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, says that recently, many journalists in Russia have been labeled as foreign agents, lost their jobs and left the country. He adds that the authorities mock the media, saying, "The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on." However, he prefers to reverse this saying: "The caravan goes on because the dogs are barking," illustrating that the authorities' terror won't drown out the truth.

When the chairman of the Memorial Association stands in front of the Swedish royal family at the end of 2022, his place of work no longer exists. However, while receiving the honorary award, he emphasizes that it is not the culmination of 35 years of Memorial's work but an encouragement to continue. It's not just about uncovering the past but bringing inconvenient facts to light for the authorities. Without them, Jan Raczinski appeals, there is no future, no chance of taking civic responsibility for what is happening today.

Taking responsibility for his people was the decision of the head of the editorial office, who was awarded the Nobel Prize not long ago and decided to "choose the lesser evil to avoid a greater one." On the 31st day after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, "Novaya Gazeta" formally suspended its operations to avoid being deemed "extremist" and its employees labeled "foreign agents." Some editors leave and create "Novaya Gazeta Europe" in the West. Those remaining in Russia try to publish their materials through social media and YouTube.

In two years, over 900 people and organizations have been listed as "foreign agents," with 2/3 of the list consisting of journalists. More than 20,000 people have been arrested in Russia on charges of anti-war activities, and fines amounting to nearly $1.6 million have been imposed.

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