Taisia Bekbulatova, chief editor of Russian news site Holod, is assembling her newsroom in exile after many in her staff fled Russia due to fears of persecution over their journalism. (Photo: Rina Mayer)

‘Censor yourself or don’t work at all’: Why squeezed Russian journalists are fleeing in droves

Last week, Taisia Bekbulatova, chief editor of Russian independent news site Holod, began frantically looking for plane tickets. Bekbulatova, who is based in Georgia, wanted to evacuate her Russia-based staff after the country passed legislation threatening up to 15 years in prison for the publication of “fake” information about the invasion of Ukraine. 

“It was apparent that the law was directed toward journalists, and the thought of having to censor ourselves to continue working was just unconscionable,” she told CPJ. 

At least 150 journalists are believed to have fled Russia due to the country’s recent restrictions on the press, including around a dozen from Holod, Bekbulatova said. 

Bekbulatova relocated to Tbilisi at the end of last year after she was declared a “foreign agent” by Russia’s justice ministry. She spoke to CPJ about her efforts to evacuate her staff and the struggle to continue covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in exile. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

When did you realize that Holod’s staff could no longer stay in Russia?

When the legislation against “fakes” was introduced, it became clear that we would need to leave, that we wouldn’t be able to work in Russia anymore. 

I opened this newsroom to get away from censorship, to be independent. If we stayed, we would have had to start censoring ourselves. And if we didn’t, members of our newsroom would be imprisoned. That’s why we decided to evacuate our journalists from Russia. 

However, while we’ve left the country, we do not want to, and will not, stop working. We want to make sure that people can still read about what is actually taking place. Working from outside Russia is the only thing that makes sense. 

We’ve broken off ties with any colleagues who decided to stay in Russia because there is no way we could ensure their safety.

How many Holod staff members have gotten out? 

Ten or fifteen. It’s not clear yet because we’re all spread out. When it became apparent that Russia could declare martial law people, not just journalists, panicked and started fleeing the country. 

Because of this, the cost of tickets skyrocketed. We started buying tickets for our staff to any place that we could find tickets to. 

[Editor’s note: The Kremlin has denied that it will institute martial law.]

How do you get money now that Visa and Mastercard have suspended their operations in Russia and accessing Russian bank accounts from abroad is nearly impossible

The sanctions that were put into place against Russia are really hurting independent journalists, activists, and regular people who are against Putin’s political stance and had to flee the country. In essence, these sanctions left these people without money, without the possibility of withdrawing money. And for us, our coworkers [who have left Russia] have spent a lot of time trying to figure out a way to get another bank card and continue receiving their salaries [due to restrictions on Russian banks].

How do you plan on continuing your work from inside Georgia? 

The biggest demand from our Russian readers right now is true information about the war because sources with accurate information about what’s going on have become very few in number. For people who aren’t zombified by television and want to receive real information — we’re prepared to deliver it to them. 

In the beginning when we established our newsroom, we focused on storytelling and longreads from around Russia. But now the focus of our work has changed a bit and is focused more on current events because we as journalists need to dig into what’s happening at this moment in history. People are interested in accurate, truthful news. 

At the same time, we haven’t abandoned our initial commitment to storytelling and have written about how people in Russia and Ukraine are dealing with what’s happening – people who had to leave Russia, as well as people who got into arguments with their family members because of different opinions about what’s happening in the war. These things are incredibly painful and the storytelling format works better. 

We’re planning on integrating these two approaches as we continue. We’re also planning on expanding our coverage of Schengen countries, and to release English-language products and work more with foreign media on future projects, and so on. 

Of course we have to reorient our operations, but we’re ready to take on this challenge. 

Under what circumstances would you return to Russia? 

If there was a real chance for the situation in Russia to change, then I might. I’m not just talking about if the dictator [President Vladimir Putin] were to disappear. There would need to be an indication that there is a real chance for things to change. Then it would make sense to return and try to break down the information blockade that was made by giving propaganda to people. But now, there is practically nothing that independent journalists inside of Russia can do. 

It is first of all not possible to work honestly. Using the word “war” instead of “special operation” [to refer to the invasion of Ukraine] can result in a prison sentence. Either you work poorly and censor yourself or you don’t work at all. That’s the choice that you have right now. And so we made the decision that we won’t quit our work, we’ll work from abroad. 

What is it like for Russian journalists in Georgia? 

There are a lot of Russians here right now–not just journalists, but a lot of young people who just don’t want to participate in the war, and people who hope to start living without Putin because they understand that they won’t be able to change anything in the near term. I would also say that it’s a bit tense here because of that. Georgians remember the 2008 war with Russia and people are very scared that Putin could attack again. Their fear sometimes turns into negative emotions about Russians who arrived. However, 99 percent of the Russians who are here left their home because of [Putin’s] regime and [Georgians] don’t understand the situation in Russia. 

We don’t plan on staying in Georgia because it’s evident at the moment that it’s not the safest country for independent journalists because the current government is trying to avoid unnecessary conflict with Putin. It’s already apparent that many activists and journalists aren’t allowed in the country… We plan on looking for another spot.