Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a Moscow rally on March 18, 2022, to mark the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea. (RIA Novosti Host Photo Agency/Vladimir Astapkovich via Reuters)

Opinion: Putin tolerated some critical voices in his 22-year assault on Russian media. His war in Ukraine ends even that.

On the morning after Boris Yeltsin stunned the world by resigning and turning over the Russian presidency to Vladimir Putin, The New York Times published a “man in the news” column that struggled to define the new leader. Putin was a man who “would never deceive you,” promised his political mentor and former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, though the broader theme in that Jan. 1, 2000 article was that the KGB agent-turned-politician was “a mystery” whose true character “remains behind a veil.”

Less than three months later, the Committee to Protect Journalists lifted the veil on Putin and press freedom. “Independent journalism is under siege in Russia,” CPJ declared, in a lengthy March 2000 report cataloguing “ominous signs that independent journalism faces a bleak future under the Putin regime.” The headline on that report of nearly a quarter century ago was: “Putin’s Media War.”

Then, as now, Putin’s war on media was waged as the country also fought a military war – in Chechnya in 2000, in Ukraine today.

Then, as now, the Kremlin censored vital war information. By refusing to give out the number of war casualties in Chechnya, CPJ wrote in 2000, “the government has been able to sell the war to its citizens.” With this year’s Ukraine invasion, the government has blocked access to independent reporting while flooding state-controlled media with propaganda in support of the war.

And then, as now, Putin openly expressed his contempt for those seeking to report the truth about war.

In early 2000, the target of Putin’s venom was Andrei Babitsky, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter kidnapped by the Russian military after he dared to report on the Chechen side of the war. During the several weeks when Babitsky’s whereabouts were unknown, Putin told Russian journalists interviewing him for the book “First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President” that Babitsky “was working directly for the enemy” and suggested he might be stripped of his Russian citizenship. “What Babitsky did is much more dangerous than firing a machine gun,” Putin said.

Babitsky eventually was freed and went back to work in journalism. What will happen to the newest media targets of Putin’s wrath remains to be seen, as the war in Ukraine continues under a stringent new censorship regime.

The new rules include prison terms of up to 15 years for publishing what the Kremlin deems “fake” information about the war. Other laws are used to brand independent newsrooms and some of their journalists with ominous, Soviet-style labels: “foreign agent” and “undesirable.” And the government has blocked Russians from accessing independent news sites and social media platforms where the true consequences of the Ukraine war are on graphic display each day.

Is this the final assault in Putin’s 22-year war against independent media? In recent weeks, stories in international media have suggested that, citing as evidence the closure of longtime independent outlets Dozhd TV (also known as TV Rain) and Ekho Moskvy, as well as the exodus of dozens of journalists from Russia.

This is not the first time obituaries have been written for the independent media born in Russia in the final years of the Soviet Union but under frequent assault after Putin took power in 2000. The period after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was particularly bleak. A favored form of repression involved behind-the-scenes Kremlin maneuvering to have Putin loyalists take over or purge independent newsrooms. But in what seemed a hopeless time, some of the purged journalists went on to start up new outlets dedicated to independent reporting and in-depth investigations of financial and political malfeasance.

Now, reporters for those startups have fled the country and the draconian new wartime rules. “Impartial, independent journalism within Russia is impossible” under the regulations, Roman Anin, editor-in-chief of the two-year-old investigative site Important Stories (iStories), told CPJ. “Which means that if we want to continue telling the truth, the only way to do that is outside of Russia.” iStories was named a “foreign agent” last year, along with several other independent sites. On March 5, it became the second site after investigative outlet Proekt deemed by the Ministry of Justice to be “undesirable,” a designation that effectively disbands a newsroom by making it a crime to work for it – or even to donate money for its support.

From outside Russia, the iStories staff is reorganizing while continuing to report – though for now at least its investigative work is replaced by news stories on Ukrainian refugees and the downward spiral of the Russian economy. Video and text reports sent by freelancers and ordinary citizens help the exiled journalists report on events like anti-war protests in Russia. But  these reports can’t duplicate the work of journalists covering Russia from the inside. “The biggest limitation is that we are losing the connection with our country,” Anin said. “We’ll not be able to go to villages, to towns, and do some reports from there.”

Despite the new perils, not all independent journalists have fled — at least not yet. Prominent longtime journalists Yevgenia Albats and Alexey Pivovarov have said publicly that they’re staying. It’s “too late” to be afraid, Albats told CNN. “I am ashamed that my taxes go into bombs that kill people in Ukraine,” she said.

Among the few independent sites that still have staff working in Russia, the most notable is Novaya Gazeta, whose editor Dmitry Muratov was a co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

Novaya’s March announcement that most staff would stay noted that the site would have to stop publishing news from the frontlines in order to avoid jail or a shutdown. “We are ashamed to take this step while our friends, acquaintances and relatives are experiencing true hell in Ukraine,” a newsroom statement said. “We will continue to collect information. But when and in what form it will be published – we do not know.”

To avoid using the now-outlawed word “war” for the Ukraine invasion, Novaya stories have replaced it with <…> or “you know what” – or they use the Kremlin-approved term “special operation.” On March 16, news kiosks in Moscow refused to sell Novaya’s print version when it ran a full-page picture of the state-run TV employee who held up a poster during a live broadcast saying “stop the war.” Novaya blurred out the word “war,” but the rest of the poster’s message was clear for readers: “Don’t believe the propaganda. They are lying to you here.” On social media that day, Novaya invited readers to come to its offices to buy the paper; many who did told Novaya journalists they read it “because it tells the truth.”

Novaya Gazeta has long been a target of government warnings and fines, but three weeks into the war it had not been named a foreign agent or undesirable. Some believe Muratov’s Nobel prize gave the paper extra protection in the new wave of repression, though Novaya Gazeta journalist  Nadezhda Prusenkova told Voice of America’s Russian service recently that “based on the horrible logic according to which things are happening now, the prize would be an argument to close us.”

Russian journalists have warned for years that Putin had the tools to effectively block or silence all of them whenever he wished. Yet even in the darkest times for press freedom a few critical voices were tolerated – until the war in Ukraine. Though it’s clear the Kremlin wants to control the Ukraine narrative, it’s not clear why – in a country where state-controlled TV still dominates media – all tolerance for the relatively small independent journalism community has finally evaporated.

“I don’t see actually how the [independent] media was damaging very much the operation itself, the war itself,” said the editor of one independent news site, who asked to not be identified for fear of retaliation. “How did the Ministry of Defense suffer from TV Rain or Ekho Moskvy? I don’t think they suffered at all. So I don’t see any rational reason here” for the new crackdown.

Whatever the reason, the crackdown moves Russia into a dark new period of information blackout. The staffs of Meduza, iStories and other sites created in the wake of the 2014 wave of repression are publishing from exile for Russians who reach them via VPN, Telegram or email. But Meduza CEO and publisher Galina Timchenko said it is hard to see how independent journalism recovers this time. “There are too [many] risks, personal risks, for journalists,” she said. “We have some islands of resistance. But they are very small islands of resistance.”