Russian journalists who have quit their jobs in state media talked to The Moscow Times about their decision. Most say they did it as a protest against the invasion of Ukraine or out of fear that they would be sent to the war zone to report. Eight journalists working at national television and print media spoke with The Moscow Times anonymously. One of them said that their bosses had warned them ahead of time about the invasion of Ukraine. For the others it came as a shock.
Shut up and don’t think about it
“The day before it happened they told us almost outright that there would be war,” a journalist from the TV station “Zvezda” (the Russian armed forces’ channel) told The Moscow Times. “We’re used to being in war zones, plus we always travel with the military, so it’s relatively safe. But this time it was horrendous.”
The military correspondent said that he and most of his colleagues supported Putin “in foreign policy.” But now that they have seen what is happening, several of them are breaking ranks.
A journalist at the Russian Television and Broadcasting Company that airs Channel Two said that they are intentionally not following what is happening in Ukraine. “I ty to not think about it. I really don’t understand what’s going on there and I don’t want to understand. They tell us that Putin had no choice and I try to believe that.”
Not everyone is “trying to understand.” Another journalist at that channel said that reporters set up a private chatroom to discuss what is happening militarily and the chances of film crews being sent to Ukraine.
“A lot of them are afraid that they’ll be sent to cover the war. One of our cameramen from station near the border even quit,” the journalist said. “But on the other hand, people are deeply depressed. They have no other work options, but most of them realize what we’re doing.”
Moscow-based reporters at Channel One and Russian foreign correspondents who don’t agree with the official position talk in private online chatrooms. Two people who post on them said they understood perfectly well what the channel was doing but could not affect the editorial policy in any way. They told the Moscow Times that they were afraid of being fired.
“After the Bolotny Square demonstrations a while back, a lot of people who quit out of principle couldn’t find work,” a journalist with 15 years’ experience at Channel One told The Moscow Times. “Some came back. In fact, one of those ‘oppositionists’ now works in the presidential press pool. People can convince themselves of anything.”
The journalists said that their colleagues in the state media suffer from depression and have problems with alcohol, but that a career in a national publication still remains very attractive. Only a few people have quit; The Moscow Times only found two.
“One of Channel One’s foreign correspondents who now films segments critical of the U.S. was against the so-called “Russian spring” of 2014. In private conversations she said she was against the annexation of Crimea and support for the separatist regions of the Donbas. But she had the sense not to show it. And now she has a great salary and is considered one of the most successful journalists in the country.”
At the newspaper Izvestia a very distraught journalist told us confidentially that she was born in Ukraine and is categorically against the hostilities.
“I constantly check reports. I’ve got relatives and friends there. I’m scared for them. But I don’t say anything to my co-workers. I’ve got a mortgage to pay off.”
On the tail of journalists
Many state companies have recently begun to keep an eye on their employees’ social media posts, but since the invasion of Ukraine, all journalists working at national media are monitored.
“There is one person who checks our posts. I know who she is, but I won’t give her name,” a journalist from Channel One told us. “She runs and tells assistants of Kleimenov — he’s the head of the directorate of news programming. Then we start getting calls from upstairs demanding that we take down our posts.”
Another journalist said that they were told not contradict official positions.
Instead, they were assigned topics they had to cover. For example, at the end of February the Channel One and Channel Two journalists were told to shoot news pieces on refugees from Ukraine.
“The last four segments we shot were about refugees from Donbas who had settled in different parts of the country,” a journalist from Channel Two said. “You really felt sorry for them — they’d gone through a lot. But I keep thinking about how hypocritical it is — in Ukraine hundreds and thousands of people are being constantly shelled now, too.”
“We’ve been waiting for refugees, but none have made it here” a regional Channel Two correspondent told The Moscow Times. “We don’t film anything else. We haven’t been able to report anything but the official line on domestic politics in a long time.”
Crackdown on dissent
But not everyone working at national state media are silent. Some are speaking out, even when it damages their career.
“Fear and pain. NO TO WAR.” Ivan Urgant, a very popular night-time talk show host on Channel One, wrote that short statement on his Instagram account. He has not been on air since then, although Larisa Krymova, the channel press secretary, says that he is still part of Channel One.
The St. Petersburg journalist Anna Zaslavskaya, who worked on the political program Inter-Vision, quit TV Channel 78 over her position on Ukraine.
Yelena Chernenko, a well-known journalist at the newspaper Kommersant, was removed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pool after she signed an open letter demanding a stop to hostilities against Ukraine. Chernenko had worked in that press pool for 11 years.
Last year 102.8 billion rubles were allocated to nation-wide state media. The big winner of state funding is Russia Today, which got 27.4 billion rubles in 2020, according to RBK. The Russian Television and Broadcasting Company got a bit less — 24.2 billion rubles. Channel One received 6.5 billion rubles in subsidies.
Channel One, Izvestia and the State Broadcasting Company did not respond to The Moscow Times requests for comment.