When Hitler invaded Poland and other countries in the 1930s he famously created a new form of war that he called Blitzkrieg. It was striking how fast European nations caved into his attacks. Putin has been trying to something similar in the wars on the Ukraine. First the one in 2014 and then again in 2022. In their own way they were both as impressive as Hitler’s “wins.”
Vladimir Kara-Murza described what happened in Russia this way in the Washington Post:
“While Vladimir Putin’s planned blitzkrieg on Ukraine appears to have stalled in the face of firm resistance by the Ukrainian military and its people, another, much less noticed assault has brought the Kremlin swift and total victory. Within a single week, all — literally, all — of Russia’s remaining independent media voices have been silenced in a co-ordinated effort by the prosecutor general’s office and the government’s main censorship agency.
One after another, media outlets that dared to report honestly on Putin’s assault on Ukraine had their signals cut off and their websites blocked.”
One of the early casualties of this war on truth was a famous radio station in Moscow called Echo of Moscow. To many people in Russia, it symbolized the best of journalism in Moscow for over 30 years. They also shut down TV rain a popular online news source.
Many people who have become cynical about media think western media is as untrustworthy as Russian media. That is a dangerous illusion. They are not equivalent. Nowhere in the west has media been shut down completely as happened so fast in Russia. We should remember that. If we are led to believe our media is as untrustworthy as that in Russia, we will not trust it when it is vital to trust it, such as during a pandemic. Or a war. The lack of trust crippled our response to a pandemic and cost many lives. The same thing can happen during a war. I am not advocating for blind trust in any media, but trust based on critical reasoning. Blind trust is as bad as blind distrust. We are not the same as Russia. Our media is not perfect, but it is much better than what Russians enjoy.
Russia tried to shut down all media during the failed coup d’état by the hard-line communist leaders in August 1991. That closure did not last long because hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow to quell the putsch. While the Communist failed, Putin has succeeded. Recently, the Russian authorities have also completely shut down dozens of other news outlets, both Russian and foreign, which Russian officials claimed had been spreading false information about the activities of the Russian armed forces in the Ukraine. Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency that is obedient to Putin’s will, has also completely blocked Twitter and Facebook, even though both are very popular with many Russians. Millions of them use these platforms but the agency closed them down. The CBC and most western news agencies have been kicked out of Russia or left because of the constraints. As Kara-Murza said, “Near-total darkness has descended on Russia’s information space with frightening speed.”
Vladimir Kara-Murza described the situation in Russia this way:
“In other words, the journalists’ crime was telling the Russian people the bloody truth about Putin’s war — the truth that is completely absent from Russian state television, which is presenting viewers with an Orwellian reality in which it is Ukraine and the West, not Putin, that are to blame for the hostilities, and in which there is no war and no civilian casualties — only a highly targeted “special operation” directed against the imaginary “Neo-Nazis” in the Ukrainian government.”
Such a total lie depends on a similarly total monopoly on news coverage. After silencing critical voices on television — the largest source of information for most Russians — early in his rule, Putin tolerated smaller outlets such as Echo of Moscow as part of a pretend democratic facade for the West’s benefit. But under the conditions of war, even small pockets of independent media that could show Russians what heinous crimes their government is committing could present an existential danger to the system.”
Not all news agencies were banned in Russia, but the government made it so uncomfortable for them that almost all of them have left the country. As Kara-Murza said, Russia passed a law with lightning speed that had the effect of “criminalizing honest reporting”. The penalties for the “crimes” can run as high as 15 years in prison. A day after the new law was passed the police raided the offices of Lev Scholsberg a well known Russian opposition politician who had until then been a vocal critic of Putin since 1914 when Russia invaded the Ukraine the first time. The police also detained a Russian orthodox priest who spoke out against he war through his sermons.
As the Guardian reported,
“Global news media said they were temporarily suspending reporting in Russia to protect their journalists after a new law cracking down on foreign news outlets was passed that threatened jail terms of up to 15 years for spreading “fake news”.
Britain’s BBC said Friday it had temporarily halted reporting in Russia, and by the end of the day, the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Bloomberg News said their journalists were also stopping work. CNN and CBS News said they would stop broadcasting in Russia, and other outlets removed Russian-based journalists’ bylines as they assessed the situation.”
Meanwhile Russian media spreads the now unchallenged party line that Ukraine is led by Neo-Nazis.
The point I want to make is that you might distrust media in the west, but no one can say they spread falsehoods like their Russian counterparts. We would be very foolish to conclude our media is the same as theirs. That would be a dangerous mistake.