Exiled to Latvia, Russia’s free media are defying the Kremlin

Relegated to Latvia since the invasion of Ukraine, the free Russian media have made it their mission to provide independent information to millions of their compatriots exposed to Kremlin propaganda.

“Those who control the information control the situation,” said Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of independent Russian TV channel Dozhd, which is now headquartered in Riga.

He said the channel’s goal is to give people access to “real information about what’s happening, and not this propaganda spread by Russian TV channels.”

Moscow is trying to block what it sees as dissident news sites online and has restricted access to major social media sites.

Fortunately, “it is possible to get information from Russia through the internet and social media. The digital iron curtain is not strong enough,” he told AFP.

Dozhd – which means “rain” in Russian – suspended operations in early March after authorities blocked its broadcasts, which contained critical coverage of the conflict in Ukraine.

Moscow also introduced prison sentences for spreading “fake news” about the Russian military and the war.

“It became impossible to work there. Because even if we call a war “war,” we could face up to 15 years in prison,” Dzyadko said.

The Latvian government offered them a shop in Riga, and by mid-July their shows were up and running again.

Several other newsrooms have also found refuge in the Latvian capital, including Novaya Gazeta Europe and the Moscow branch of Deutsche Welle.

Since 2014, the city has also operated the independent news website Meduza.

According to Dozhd journalist Valeria Ratnikova, around 300 Russian opposition journalists have moved to the Baltic state since February.

Latvia, whose Russian minority makes up 30 percent of the population, has also banned all Russian-based TV channels for propaganda, warmongering and threats to national security.

– “Extremism and Betrayal” –

Other journalists, artists and opposition figures from Belarus and Russia have found refuge in neighboring Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania.

Leaving was a breeze for Dzyadko and his staff.

“There was information that our office was being searched by the police and … that our journalists were being arrested and accused of extremism and treason,” he said.

“We found tickets to Istanbul and in about an hour we packed three suitcases, woke our kids and drove to the airport.”

Today around 60 Russian exiles work for Dozhd abroad – in Riga, France, Georgia and the Netherlands.

According to Dzyadko, the demand is there.

He pointed out that even government polls show that 30 percent of Russians – or 45 million people, “a huge number” – oppose the Ukraine conflict.

“Many people in Russia understand everything. They don’t support the war, they don’t support their President Putin, but they’re just afraid to say a word,” he said.

“It’s not safe. These people are eager for independent information. The challenge is how to get at them.”

Ratnikova said in the days after the invasion, “We’ve seen our viewership grow.”

“I believe there are thousands, even millions, who need us. And it’s not just our former audience… Over time, a lot of people will start to have doubts,” she told AFP.

– “They follow our colleagues” –

Kirill Martynov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, a mainstay of investigative journalism in Russia, left in March with a laptop as his only luggage and a plan to publish independent news from abroad.

Novaya Gazeta is now banned in Russia.

“We were firmly against war and we are still against war, even if it’s too dangerous for people to say it out loud from Russia,” he told AFP.

“And that’s why they’re persecuting our colleagues in Russia.”

In Riga, Martynov founded the Novaya Gazeta Europe with others living in exile.

They printed their first issue in Latvian and Russian in May, and newspapers from around the world published their solidarity articles.

They have posted subsequent stories online and shared them through social media such as YouTube, Telegram and Twitter.

“Russian authorities are still a bit afraid of blocking YouTube for technical and social reasons,” Martynov said.

He added that YouTube “has the largest media platform in the country because… ordinary people in Russia don’t want to watch national TV.”

Dzyadko strongly condemns TV journalists who sow state propaganda, whom he calls “war criminals”.

“Misinformation is one of the reasons why this war started and why this war is still going on,” he said.