A woman throws a paper plane into the blue sky.
A woman releases a paper plane, symbol of the Telegram messaging service, during a rally in Moscow to demand internet freedom on May 13, 2018. Though Telegram is now unrestricted in Russia, journalists report harassment and propaganda is making it harder to use. (AFP/Maxim Zmeyev)

Russia couldn’t block Telegram, but harassment, propaganda make it hostile for journalists

Telegram was meant to be blocked in Russia in April 2020 when Aleksandr Pichugin published a satirical article about the spread of COVID-19 on his channel Sorokin Khvost – an allusion to a Russian version of the saying, “A little bird told me.” Four days later, uniformed officers came to the journalist’s home and pushed him to the floor in front of his pregnant wife, he recalled in a conversation with CPJ in early 2021. He was detained overnight, as documented by CPJ, and later fined 300,000 rubles (US$3,966) for spreading “fake news”; his appeal was rejected in January 2021.

Telegram resisted Russia’s attempts to censor it, which CPJ and other observers condemned at the time. The platform remained popular among independent journalists until Roskomnadzor, the media and telecommunications regulator, finally lifted its 26-month ban in June 2020, according to news reports and CPJ interviews.

Yet while they couldn’t block Telegram, Russian officials have gradually curbed its utility for journalists, punishing individuals like Pichugin while distributing state propaganda and allegedly facilitating harassment in Telegram channels, journalists and experts told CPJ.

Today, despite Telegram’s resilience, journalism on the platform is suffering in Russia, Pichugin told CPJ. “We used to laugh at Roskomnadzor when it tried to block Telegram in 2018,” he said. Since his arrest, however, he has only used his Telegram channel to republish work he’s done elsewhere.

Roskomnadzor did not respond to CPJ’s email request for comment for this article. A regional Federal Security Service head, I. I. Zavozyayev, referred CPJ by email to the local investigative committee branch for comment on Pichugin’s arrest, but no one at the branch or its press office responded.

Founded by Russian developer Pavel Durov and now based in Dubai, Telegram circumvented the Roskomnadzor ban by rotating servers and disguising its traffic, according to news reports – meaning Russian internet providers trying to block it ended up blocking other sites. As the Russian state news agency TASS reported in 2018, a court had ordered the block saying the company failed to comply with a request to decrypt messages used by alleged terrorists after it was issued by the Federal Security Service – the same security agency Pichugin described carrying out his arrest two years later.

Russian journalists told CPJ that Telegram’s reputation for refusing to cooperate with the state added to its appeal, along with its unique combination of public channels and private messaging. “It was an open, honest platform for the direct exchange of information,” Pichugin told CPJ.

The clause used to sentence Pichugin – part of an amendment to Russia’s “fake news” law passed in March 2020 – is part of a raft of legislation CPJ has documentedbeing introduced in Russia since early 2020. As a result of these laws, journalists increasingly fear investigation for what they publish on social media platforms, Mariëlle Wijermars, Assistant Professor in Cyber-Security and Politics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, told CPJ.

“It’s the continued attempts to reinforce self-censorship that are really damaging,” Wijermars told CPJ. 

Durov has said Telegram is taking down more extremist content in Russia since it was first banned. As the legal framework to criminalize their work expands, journalists may no longer trust the company to withstand legal demands, Wijermars said.

Telegram spokesperson Mike Ravdonikas did not reply to CPJ’s message requesting comment. CPJ messaged Telegram’s press channel requesting comment, but did not hear back.

Telegram’s website says that it may disclose a terror suspect’s IP address and phone number if ordered by a court; as of mid-April, it said “this has never happened,” and a designated transparency channel was empty. Unlike some other social media platforms, Telegram does not make information about government content removal requests public, and says that it takes down illegal public content “when deemed appropriate,” but that “if criticizing the government is illegal in some country, Telegram won’t be a part of such politically motivated censorship.”

Officials have found other ways to control Telegram content, according to Mikhail Rubin of the Russian investigative journalism project Proekt. A 2018 Proekt investigation found that officials and supporters of the Kremlin were paying for posts on Telegram even in the midst of Roskomnadzor’s ban. The investigation also said that the Telegram channel Nezygar, a popular source of news and political analysis with 188,000 subscribers at the time, was controlled by the Putin administration. (A spokesperson for the administration did not respond to Proekt’s 2018 request for comment on the matter.) In 2021, the channel’s subscribers had grown to 336,957, according to CPJ’s review.

“[Officials] were furious that information was pouring into the public space without their control,” Rubin told CPJ in early 2021. “They felt that they had to be able to be in charge of what came out, give it out in controlled dosages.”

Russian officials also used the platform for official communication during the ban. Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov notoriously used it to discuss the ban, and government officials ran channels while it was officially in place, according to news reports.

Several journalists report harassment on Telegram, and in Pichugin’s case, he suspects the officials who detained him of facilitating it, he said. Russian authorities kept his laptop and phone for a month after his detention, and Telegram channels run by anonymous operators later published personal information about him that he told CPJ could only be obtained from someone with access to his devices. In an unrelated incident in February, Russian journalist Elena Solovyova saw her financial documents shared in similar channels without her consent, CPJ has reported.

While Russian journalists continue to rely on Telegram, Aleksandr Pichugin told CPJ that it was losing its appeal. If journalists using Telegram continue to be harassed or arrested for using the platform, he said, it would be left to “Telegram-gopniks” – the trolls and propagandists he dismissed using slang for small-time gangsters.