Since the outset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Russia has sought to stamp out independent reporting on the war, prompting journalists to flee and newsrooms to shut down or to self-censor under threat of criminal prosecution.
Remarkably, one local outlet has continued to produce robust reporting despite the repressive environment. SOTA, which counts a staff of 40 journalists and support workers, primarily reports on Telegram, the social media platform to which many Russian media outlets migrated after Russia blocked Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many websites.
The publication has covered the protest movement against the war, as well as politics and human rights. SOTA’s journalists have paid a high price for their coverage, facing detentions and arrests, fines, and beatings. Others have left the country and continue to report from abroad.
Aleksei Obukhov, SOTA’s co-founder and senior editor, spoke with CPJ via messaging app about what it’s like to be one of the few independent media outlets still reporting from inside Russia, the links between journalism and activism, and what he expects Russian journalism to look like in the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is SOTA’s focus and priorities in terms of coverage?
The editorial line is very simple: we write about what we think is important and interesting, with an emphasis on human rights issues. We believe that this is what media should be about.
Our priorities are human rights and politics. That is courts, elections, and the [now almost non-existent anti-war] protests. We do not focus on international stories, since we are not yet able to have a team of journalists with expertise to report on foreign events. Also, we sidestep covering combat operations in Ukraine, since we can neither verify the information nor obtain it ourselves, and we fear for our employees in Russia. However, we do cover anti-war protests, the refugee situation in Russia, and other domestic stories.
Russian authorities outlawed media from using the word “war” to describe the military operation in Ukraine. How did SOTA decide to keep using that term?
There was some debate, of course. For about a week, we used various euphemisms until we decided that it was impossible to compromise our consciences. This resulted in an important change: we stopped putting bylines on stories written by journalists in Russia as a way to minimize their risks. We refused to self-censor.
Most of the time we approach the news neutrally. We usually allow ourselves irony or sarcasm when introducing big stories, and we regularly consult each other to see if we are going a bit overboard. Basically, we strive for an objective and unbiased reporting, as we are convinced that reality offers the best satire.
Some SOTA journalists were formerly activists. What motivated them to go into journalism and how do you maintain journalistic standards?
I have never been an activist myself. I have picketed twice in my life, and both times [in support of journalist colleagues under threat]. In addition to journalism, my background includes political consulting for various opposition figures.
Some of my colleagues, indeed, come from activism. But journalism in Russia used to be structured in such a way that it was quite difficult to get into it from off the street [without contacts in the field]. The number of decent outlets was shrinking and they simply had no need for many new employees, so it was not possible to start a career in journalism coming from some random outlet.
I am not the only one with a background in journalism: editor Darya Poryadina has studied journalism, and had to interrupt her studies two months before graduation due to persecution by the [Russian] Investigative Committee [which detained and interrogated her in March 2022 as a witness in a case against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny].
For some writers, we were the first place they published. Thank god, up until recently, Russia had enough good outlets we could look up to [in order to learn the craft of journalism] — and many of them remain [in operation] to this day, albeit in exile.
What is SOTA doing to protect its correspondents?
At present we have moved the editorial staff abroad — some of our colleagues cannot return due to threats of criminal prosecution. A large part of the staff remains in Russia, working in various regions. To protect correspondents in Russia, we pay for the services of an in-house lawyer. In addition, sometimes publicity and a formal media license helps [protect correspondents from arbitrary prosecution].
You’ve still been subject to plenty of threats.
We received threats through “anonymous” Telegram channels, [when the door of one of our journalists was] marked with the letter ”Z” [a pro-Russian invasion symbol] and in the form of [unwanted attention] by the Investigative Committee and the FSB [the Russian Federal Security Service]. This also includes the search of [editor] Darya Poryadina’s and Aleksandr Peskov’s apartment.
What is your business model?
Our business model is sponsorship and grants. Fundraising, especially with the outbreak of war and [foreign governments’] blocking of foreign transfers [to Russia as a way to pressure the Kremlin] has become virtually impossible. Another small amount of money comes from advertising. But we are very selective with our advertisers, so we cannot seriously consider this a source of revenue.
How has your way of distributing information evolved in recent months? What are your options if Telegram gets blocked?
Our approach to information distribution [which is mainly via Telegram] has not changed since the war began. We have been preparing [to deal with blocks] since 2020, when the protests in Belarus showed that media outlets will only be able to survive on social media [because their websites were blocked].
The blocking of Telegram will undoubtedly be the final nail in the coffin of free media in Russia. There is hope that [Telegram founder] Pavel Durov, who has already managed to bypass blocking once [in 2018 by rotating servers and disguising traffic], will be able to do so in the future as well.
With hundreds of journalists leaving Russia in the last year, how can Russian independent media still cover events of public importance?
We continue to work in the field, as I said, keeping the names of our correspondents confidential. Fortunately, colleagues who cover courts, etc., have not yet drawn the attention of the law enforcement agencies as much as our editors have. However, we cannot hide them completely: we get accreditations from the Central Election Commission, courts, various forums, and so on.
What do you make of the recent changes in Russia’s media landscape in which reputable and established media outlets have been forced to stop their operations in Russia, creating a vacuum that some new outlets are starting to fill?
I cannot say that a new generation has emerged. We are rather talking about a reshaping or reinventing of media outlets in the context of the shutdown of editorial offices and censorship. The war did not create something new; it modified the old. The giant dinosaurs have been replaced by small mammals, which are much harder for enemies to chase.
This has been the most important question of all in recent years. The pessimistic answer: we will start to feel the refreshing “Cheyne-Stokes respiration” [a slow death precipitated by belabored breathing]. The optimistic one: we will hear the sound of an invigorating snuff box hit [indicating a quick assassination], but this is unlikely. As for what’s most realistic, nobody knows right now. But it is clear that the dark clouds have definitely thickened, and god knows how and when they will disperse.