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Interview With a Russian Journalist Who Counters State Propaganda

While censorship of the media in Russia is now almost total, some Russian journalists circumvent threats and blockings. They continue to provide information to counter state propaganda and fuel public debate in wartime. Despite the danger, they are producing knowledge about what is happening in Russia and helping to deconstruct the discourse of ruling elites.

Sciences Po Center for International Studies (CERI) organised a round-table discussion, “What News From Russia?”, with Russian journalists to discuss the political challenges of their work in the context of war.

Among them, Elizaveta Osetinskaya from The Bell agreed to answer our questions.

In the current climate of extreme repression, are your local sources under threat? How do you build a relationship of trust with them?

The conditions in which independent journalists currently work in Russia are getting worse, because the Russian government has a very diverse toolkit of how to suppress and pursue opposition journalists and civil society activists. They implement this toolkit step by step, but very consistently. What was not considered criminal in previous years or previous months can be criminalised overnight, and we do not know how and when the threats will be carried out or the potential criminal cases will be prosecuted. 

So the lines not to be crossed by independent journalists keep moving, and this uncertainty is threatening. It can lead to some serious consequences. It makes it very hard to predict the future of those independent journalists, who work for independent media within the country. 

At The Bell, we took the complicated but important decision not to work directly with journalists who are in the country. We widely use sources of information like people inside or close to the government and to regulators. Our sources also are at risk, obviously, and we keep them strictly confidential and do not disclose them. We would prefer our sources to be known, for our readers to completely trust the information that we deliver, but we need to be realistic and responsible considering the context.

How do you manage to reach a readership, despite the fear and repression of the regime ? How is your audience?

We know our audience very well. Newsletter subscribers are the most reliable people in terms of attention to content, and I'm glad to say that we feed our audience. What I mean is that we are aligned with what we initially wanted to do: capture the important, significant number of Westernised, global minded Russians who make certain decisions in the country and who are actively involved in business. We managed to reach exactly this group of people, our audience is mostly made up of higher socio professional categories, living in large cities.

The thing about almost every independent media in Russia is that our websites are blocked. It is the first barrier to accessing our information. That's why we use multiple and flexible channels, to make sure we reach our audience: we have our social media channels like Telegram, our newsletters which are pivotal because it's hard to block newsletters. All in all, we reach 100,000 unique subscribers with our newsletters, about the same on Telegram and slightly more on YouTube where we have half a million followers.

Cover image caption: Elizaveta Osetinskaya, May 2024, Sciences Po. (credits: Clara Dufour / Sciences Po)