Under pressure at home, Russian journalists turn to Armenia
Less than two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, journalists Victor and Victoria Muchnik found themselves in Armenia.
“We never thought of leaving Russia, not even when several years ago our TV channel [SiberiaTV2] was shut down,” she says. But after the invasion, the channel, which had moved online, was blocked after they published an article calling it a war, not “a special operation.”
Two days later, they were in Armenia. “It was very fast, I even didn't have time to pack properly or think out everything, we just moved to Armenia, where we at least had friends and people we know,” she says.
The Muchniks were not the only ones.
Russian investigative news site Agentstvo, which is currently based in Georgia, notes that around 150 editors and journalists from independent Russian media outlets have left the country as a result of new regulations, laws, and repressive actions of the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies, and Mass Communications, a media authority more commonly known as Roskomnadzor.
While most of the estimated 150,000 Russians who fled to Armenia after the invasion are IT specialists, a community of journalists is also forming.
Samvel Martirosyan, a journalist, media expert, cybersecurity specialist, and CEO of the CyberHUB project, notes their presence is less noticeable than the IT workers but they could be attracted by the same benefits that are attracting other industries.
“Armenia is mostly good for those who work in the sphere of business, IT, and in relative fields of marketing and sales. It is a good space for those who seek jobs since the Armenian IT sphere is well-developed and endlessly needs various specialists… There are other pluses… the population that is relatively Russian speaking or at least understands the language, the safety and lack of aggression against Russians, low prices, healthy and diverse food…” he says.
“It`s different in journalism. Any visible influence or changes is not noticeable yet, since the people who relocated here have a relatively secluded lifestyle, and the Armenian media sphere and editors have the same secluded lifestyle and rarely embrace change.”
He adds that the Armenian government’s relationship with the media is “pretty irrational,” but journalists enjoy much wider freedoms than their colleagues in Russia.
“It fully welcomes the freedom of expression however, [the government] creates many legal obstacles to its diversity more than the previous government had,” he says. “On the other hand, the media is very polarized and more than ever integrated into the narrative of political debates. This too clearly affects the freedom of speech and its direction. It will be interesting to see how/if Russia`s situation will affect its development.”
Yan Shenkman, a journalist of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper known for its critical and investigative coverage of Russian political and social affairs, is still trying to figure out how to work as an emigre.
“It`s hard. What should I do…keep writing about Russia? Well…I haven’t lived there for almost seven months. Things have changed there,” he says. “It`s very uncertain being stuck in different worlds. One was your reality as you thought, but not anymore. I am here, but what can I do here? This is much harder than the loss of home itself…you are losing your themes, and topics where you were confident about and once you do, you stop feeling confident in anything.”
He notes that locals he meets have a hard time understanding that he left his country; he is not merely on vacation or a business trip.
“What surprises me in Armenia is that people often ask me if I am a tourist or for work…none of them have yet assumed that I might be an immigrant, who left his country, because he had to,” he says. “I migrated and the reason why I left is my inability to carry on my professional activities.”
Ilya Bazhan, an independent media specialist, decided to use the greater level of press freedom in Armenia to create an independent media platform focused on sharing credible news after he arrived in the country.
“Independent journalism is easier and safer out of Russia,” he says. “We speak much about freedom of speech but never get into details of what it really is. From my perception it is first a sense of tolerance towards another one, the ability to see the world how it is, without judgment or being preoccupied with how should it be.”
Ilya`s team currently consists of almost 40 people, though ideally, he would need 90 people to fulfill his request for a properly running media outlet, which he plans to launch soon.
The Muchniks also decided to use their new home as a chance to create a new media project to help their compatriots speak out against the war.
“We had no other option than to embrace the fact of closure of our site, close the initiative and move on. We realized, that now, at this point from our location, we can capture the voices against the war. We came up with a new project titled Witnesses,” Victoria says.
“At first, we were surprised to see how many people from Russia were ok with openly speaking of their anti-war positions, without fear. Our project has two tasks, one is documenting these voices, and the other is providing people with a platform for self-expression because even this is now not possible [at home].”
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.