WASHINGTON - Some 80 journalists are included among the thousands of people who have been detained across Russia during protests over the arrest and sentencing of opposition politician Alexey Navalny.
Several of the journalists were beaten. At least one was jailed because of posts on social media about the unrest.
The strong tactics used by security forces to contain protests, and the retaliation against independent journalists covering them, were no surprise to Russian politicians, analysts and journalists interviewed by VOA. What was less expected was Russia’s inability to stem the flow of information about Navalny’s case and the rallies in his support.
The protests started shortly after Navalny was detained January 17 when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he was treated after being poisoned. A Moscow court sentenced him Tuesday to two years and eight months in prison, prompting more demonstrations.
Part of Navalny’s defense has been to use social media and journalism platforms to reach supporters and draw attention to President Vladimir Putin’s lavish lifestyle and what Navalny says were attempts by the Kremlin to poison him. Russia denies the allegation.
Navalny has shared details of his persecution with his 6.5 million followers on Twitter and Instagram — numbers that equal or exceed the audiences of mainstream Russian news outlets. His Anti-Corruption Foundation used investigative journalism techniques and YouTube to detail allegations of high-level corruption. And news outlets, including the investigative website Bellingcat, have reported on Russia’s alleged attempts to surveil and poison him.
Navalny’s media-savvy approach and use of new platforms have knocked Moscow off balance. With independent media largely suppressed and viewers turning away from state TV — which rarely covers issues that may anger the Kremlin — Russians have looked to international outlets or niche media for their news. They use a range of social media platforms, including TikTok, Telegram and others, to share information and reporting.
Russia has attempted to block access to some of these sites through laws regulating posts and by warning platforms against sharing information about the protests. Pro-Kremlin trolls have tried to counter opposition voices on social media with limited success.
The Kremlin argues the platforms are being used to incite unrest or spread what it deems to be extremist views, and that regulations are needed to prevent the spread of disinformation.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.
While the scenes in recent days were reminiscent of the anti-government rallies in 2011 and 2012, analysts say society has drastically changed, along with the communication channels used to share information and cover events.
"In 2011-2012, they stood up against fraudulent elections. Now, the protest has become more personalized,” Russian politician Dmitry Gudkov told VOA, adding that people now are out protesting against Putin.
“And in response, Putin and his forces have hit back by detaining or retaliating against activists, independent journalists and social media that cover investigations into his administration,” he said.
Gudkov was a member of the State Duma (lower house of the Federal Assembly) during the 2011 protests. His support for the movement led to his suspension from the Spravedlivaya Rossiya (Fair Russia) Party. He later led the opposition Civic Initiative Party, which the Supreme Court suspended in 2020.
In 2011, Facebook was the primary platform.
“Now, information is distributed across different social media and messengers,” said Oleg Kozlovsky, a Russian blogger and human rights activist who co-founded a group dedicated to peaceful resistance to the current regime. “YouTube now plays an essential role, along with messenger apps Telegram and WhatsApp that are used for coordination.”
In 2018, Russian officials tried to block Telegram. But they failed to prevent users from accessing the site, and the ban was overturned in 2020.
“Authorities continuously threaten to block social media if they allow postings about protests,” Kozlovsky said. "A new law allowing the blocking of social media was adopted just a month ago," he added, referring to legislation requiring social networks to filter information deemed to show “disrespect for society, the state, the Constitution,” or that calls for riots.
Alongside social media, another challenge to the official narrative comes from foreign media that provide coverage in Russian, including VOA, BBC, Deutsche Welle and RFE/RFL, journalists say.
Audiences for foreign media have grown in Russia because of widespread censorship across major media outlets and efforts by the Kremlin to eliminate almost all local independent media in the country.
"It's clear for the Kremlin that journalists drive the liberal opposition in Russia. And they oppose the regime by reporting the truth on the internet,” said Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at the George Washington University Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies. “People who know the truth about the government become an opposition, too, and we can see this in polls. In this regard, of course, the masks are pulled off, and the regime no longer pretends to be friendly. The regime considers journalists as enemies.”
The recent unrest was widely covered by mostly foreign media. Live coverage of Navalny’s arrest carried by “Current Time,” a daily Russian-language news show produced by RFE/RL and VOA, and Deutsche Welle, garnered hundreds of thousands of views and was shared on social media and other outlets.
This fits a wider pattern of audiences looking to investigative journalism and social media platforms for news not covered by state media.
In 2020, the nonprofit investigative media outlet Proekt published several articles that looked at corruption among Putin’s acquaintances. Baza, an outlet predominantly based on Telegram, and which communicates with readers and pays them for sending in exclusive information and photos, is also gaining the attention of audiences and media.
Baza has carried investigations on law enforcement, including a shooting near the FSB building in Moscow, and the case of Ivan Golunov, a journalist who says authorities planted drugs on him to justify an arrest.
While state TV and mainstream media in Russia have accused Navalny of hype, these outlets filled a gap by covering details of his surveillance and poisoning.
“Among the ages up to 45 years old, the internet is a primary source of the information. Among older people, the TV is still influential,” Snegovaya said. “But even older groups of Russian people are increasingly active on the internet.”
From 2013 to 2020, the number of people who watched TV in Russia dropped from 88% to 74%, according to the Levada Center, an independent polling organization. At the same time, daily social media use increased in one year, from 46% in 2019 to 51% in 2020. The use of messenger apps was at 69% in 2020.
While the impact of social media has not been fully assessed, anecdotally it appears to be having an effect.
"Previously, calls on Twitter were the catalyst of protest. Now, it is video content on YouTube and TikTok. The effect of TikTok during the protests is still difficult to assess, but it is obvious that the TV no longer works in the mass consciousness,” said Kirill Goncharov, a member of the opposition Russian United Democratic Party, or “Yabloko.”
News sites actively use YouTube to push content, and some have reported seeing a rise in ratings. Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of the independent TV Rain, said on YouTube alone, 19 million people watched its broadcast of rallies for Navalny.
The Kremlin may be slow to recognize the power of these platforms, but veterans of the Russian opposition movement say they anticipate repression toward civil society and media.
"I don't know what exactly they will do, but the reaction to the protests will be tough," Kozlovsky said.
Goncharov said he suspects authorities will hire bloggers to “push their propaganda on these platforms.”
A counteroffensive already appears to be in play. Popular Russian bloggers and celebrities posted similar videos on Instagram and TikTok in which they criticized the protesters and praised Putin.
Russian singer Philipp Kirkorov used Instagram to call Putin "the smartest leader in the history of humankind."
“Vladimir Putin and his team don’t stop to surprise me in a positive way. Russia deserves it," Kirkorov wrote on January 24, the day after the mass protests.
Videos posted online also show protesters giving what are believed to be forced apologies. Journalists have received threatening messages from anonymous users on Telegram, some of whom share personal information and private photos, or make up stories about the reporters’ alleged connections with the West.
Victor Oleynik, a VOA contributor and co-founder of “Beware of Them,” a project that catalogs wrongdoing by police, said he was falsely accused of coordinating the protests in Russia with the U.S. government. The accusation was shared by dozens of troll accounts on Twitter and Telegram, which resulted in Oleynik's receiving threatening messages.
More arrests and harassment are anticipated, according to the Russians with whom VOA spoke, some of whom said they feared persecution if they talked on the record. But they said the spread of these platforms would make the stifling of news more difficult.