Nine inching years. Mediazona’s journey of resilience and resistance
Nine inching years. Mediazona’s journey of resilience and resistance
4 September 2023, 21:55

Art: Maria Tolstova / Mediazona

Mediazona launched on September 4, 2014. At that time, the team consisted of a mere four journalists, including the editor-in-chief, Sergey Smirnov. Back then, everyone took turns writing news, we were perennial fixtures in courtrooms for live reports, and we barely had time to pen stories.

Since then, our team has expanded and diversified. We now have a dedicated news department, we publish data investigations, create videos and live streams, and provide daily coverage of war and repression. We also translate our stories into English and publish original work. All these achievements have been possible thanks to the consistent support from our readers. However, the Ukraine invasion, coupled with financial constraints and sanctions, has caused a drastic decline in subscriptions. Nowadays, our primary concern is survival, and we are fully aware that our journey would be impossible without our readers. You can support Mediazona here.

While the count of those who’ve stood by and believed in us remains the cornerstone of our story, as we celebrate our ninth year, we’re also reflecting on the myriad of other pivotal moments and milestones.

Mediazona has closely monitored the events of the war since the onset of the Russian invasion, for 558 relentless days. Our scope, however, isn’t just a daily military account. We’ve reported on the millions of Ukrainians who became refugees, the people who queued at border points in the conflict’s early days, and those who risked foot crossings to escape artillery attacks. We’ve interviewed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and spoken to Ukrainians enduring sieges in places such as Hostomel, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Bakhmut.

We’ve showcased the resilience of residents in occupied cities and the brutal responses they faced from Russian troops. Our stories have spotlighted Ukrainians defending their homeland, as well as volunteers aiding cities under attack. We’ve also highlighted the brave souls who rescued family from occupied areas, only to be imprisoned in Russia.

The liberation of Bucha, a town in the Kyiv region, was significant. In under a month of Russian occupation, hundreds were killed. Bucha stands as a grim testament to Russia’s wartime atrocities. We’ve documented civilian killings and tortures, shared survivor accounts, and countered false claims of staged events

Furthermore, we’ve given insight into the Russian army’s state, from tracking “partial mobilisation” to reporting on looting and dissenters, while continually updating the count of Russian military killed in the Ukraine conflict.

On March 6 2022, a mere one and a half weeks after the beginning of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency, blocked Mediazona for all Russian readers. Prior to this, the agency had demanded the removal of our entire website for disseminating “deliberately false information,” which, according to the authorities, posed a “threat to the lives and (or) health of citizens, a risk of widespread public disorder and (or) public safety.”

We are still blocked in Russia but we go out of our way to deliver our reporting to our readers. Russian authorities have been intensifying their control over the internet, and this has become particularly evident in recent months. Some mirror sites that we’ve been setting up lasted barely a day before they too were blocked. We are doing our best to update them and circumvent state censorship.

By the time Mediazona was launched in 2014, it became evident that repression in Russia would only intensify. Today, one can face legal proceedings for almost anything: speaking the truth about the war, sharing memes on social media, sharing a prayer from the Pope, or even jokingly lifting a slender National Guard officer.

It’s hardly surprising that our online coverage began to feature not just crime bosses, staff from torture-prone prisons, governors, and state ministers—we found ourselves attending court hearings involving musicians, artists, activists, actors, directors, and poets.

Even now, we continue to monitor the most ludicrous criminal trials in the country: the trial of Sasha Skochilenko, accused under the military “fake news” article for her anti-war price tags in a supermarket; the ongoing legal battles of Alexei Navalny, now set to be imprisoned indefinitely; and cases centred around the “discrediting” of the army.

Sergey Smirnov, our Editor-in-Chief, was detained on January 30, 2021. Police approached Smirnov while he was out for a walk with his son. The trigger was a retweeted joke about the visual resemblance between Smirnov and Dmitry Spirin, the leader of the band “Tarakany!”.

The police interpreted the retweet as a call for unsanctioned demonstrations—the image contained info about the date of a public rally. At the time, Alexei Navalny had just returned to Russia after an assassination attempt and treatment in Germany. Immediately upon his return, he was arrested. Protests erupted across the country, with the authorities apprehending those calling for them. Smirnov’s detention came on the eve of another week of protests.

Initially, the court sentenced Smirnov to 25 days of arrest. Later, on appeal, the term was reduced to 15 days, following public support and outrage from numerous publications and journalists (we’d like to thank all our colleagues for their solidarity!).

Sergey Smirnov spent his days in the infamous special detention centre in Sakharovo, in Novaya Moskva, which at the time was overcrowded with protesters. Until the end, it remained uncertain whether Smirnov would be released or charged under a criminal article.

He was fortunate that time, but from that moment, it became clear that an attack on Mediazona was only a matter of time. The concerted effort to suppress independent journalism in Russia was in full swing, with labels like “undesirable organisation”, “foreign agent”, and criminal cases being issued left and right (we are “foreign agents”—of Google Ireland, no joke). However, no one could have foreseen the war in Ukraine and the current scale of repression in Russia.

In November 2018, our correspondent Nikita Sologub visited Adygea Republic in the Russian South to meet Aslan Khut, who had twice been sentenced to execution on murder charges and had spent 47 years trying to prove his innocence. The article about him was published only on August 3, 2021. Its draft version contained 15,140 words or 100,852 characters. Nikita meticulously reconstructed the crime that took place on a rural road in 1974.

We had been tracking another story from the Russian South for 5 years. In October 2015, we first wrote about Maxim Litasov, a man from Apsheronsk who died under suspicious circumstances and whose head was lost in a Krasnodar morgue during a forensic examination. Posthumously, Litasov was accused of attacking the parents of a local policeman. Maxim’s family spent years trying to clear his name, and only in February 2020 did the Supreme Court make a final decision, refusing to accept an appeal against the posthumous sentence.

Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition politician, was shot in 2015 on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, right near the Kremlin. The trial against the five alleged perpetrators (whose level of involvement raises questions, as we’ve detailed in our coverage) began in October 2016. The process stretched for nearly nine months, and throughout, we provided live updates from the courtroom.

The jury’s verdict took almost three days, with their debates being particularly contentious. The investigators didn’t seek the organisers or the masterminds behind the crime. In our investigation, we detailed the individuals evidently connected to the assassination, who strangely didn’t pique the interest of the official investigators. Every lead pointed to the close circle of Ramzan Kadyrov, the infamous Chechen leader.

In 2020, several young journalists from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus decided to launch their own publications in the style of Russia’s Mediazona. This led to the launches of Mediazona Central Asia and later Mediazona Belarus.

The latter faced the most challenging environment. They launched just days before August 9, when Belarus was gripped by unprecedented protests against election fraud in the presidential elections. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets, faced with security forces using stun grenades and undergoing brutal treatment in the infamous Minsk detention centre on Okrestina. Mediazona Belarus reporters provided almost round-the-clock live coverage, even as they tweaked their new website on the go. That revolution did not succeed; in a few months, it became clear that Lukashenka’s regime had prevailed, and Belarus entered a grim period. Mediazona Belarus and all its social media were listed as “extremist materials”. The editorial team continues to work and develop the site, but now from exile.

The journalists of Mediazona Central Asia witnessed equally dramatic events. They covered the change of power in Kyrgyzstan and the January protests in Kazakhstan, which marked the end of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s nearly 30-year rule.

Before being blocked at the beginning of the war, we spent many years in a cat-and-mouse game with Roskomnadzor, the internet and media censorship agency. For years, we received demands to remove certain parts from our stories, often related to suicide or drugs.

Under the threat of fines and blocks, we complied, but we did so with a sense of mocking defiance, replacing contentious words with [Roskomnadzor] in brackets, ensuring the actual meaning remained clear to our readers.

The result? Phrases like “called for mass [Roskomnadzors] during an attempt to quell the uprising” or “after returning home, the young man decided to test the substance and [Roskomnadzor] the size of a pinkie”.

Another game with censorship was to replace swear words with asterisks, ensuring we avoided fines but still allowing readers to guess the word (the number of asterisks always matched the number of letters in the word). There were easy cases (like the widely-known phrase “Putin is a fairy-tale ********”), but sometimes it took a bit of imagination. For instance, it’s challenging to decipher what the blogger Lyokha Kochegar said in a livestream that led to criminal charges against him:

“I suggest tearing down this, ****, ****, border and starting a damn, **** ****, revolution, bloodless, without ****. I think, **** ****, there are people in the police too. I don’t think, I know there are, there are really good people. They will understand and switch to our side. But to start a bloody massacre... That’s what they’re waiting for, for us to *********** each other.”

The team collectively owns 15 dogs, 27 cats, two lizards, one frog, and one snake.

Many of Mediazona’s pets have harrowing, heartwarming, or humorous tales behind them. For instance, the shaggy dog Mishka was found by Mediazona at the murder site of an entire family in the village of Kosaya Gora in the Tula region. The reporters took the orphaned Mishka back to Moscow, and now he enjoys walks in Harlem alongside our photo editor, Margarita Filippova.

The cat named Cognac, currently living in Istanbul, was found by Mediazona in Dilijan, Armenia, as a famished kitten. Our editorial manager, Gala Latygovskaya, rescued her. Cognac’s name was inspired by the Armenian cognac that the team bought to celebrate their final day of rest.

Our pets share in our editorial meetings, communal picnics, and walks. Sometimes they also share in our burdens: Olya Romashova’s dogs, Masik and Cassie, endured a distressing police search alongside their owner. Alla Konstantinova’s dogs, Gera and Ushshi, were stalked by officers from the Petrozavodsk penal system, who were affected by one of Alla’s investigations. Meanwhile, the dachshunds and cats belonging to Sergey Smirnov were taken care of in turns by Mediazona staff while the Editor-in-Chief served an arrest for retweeting a satirical tweet.

Many of the editorial team’s animals found themselves in exile with their owners following the onset of the war, while others had to remain in Russia. The “Cats of Mediazona” and “Dogs of Mediazona” Telegram chat groups are the busiest non-work-related chats of the team.

In 2017, we initiated a crowdfunding campaign, positioning Mediazona as one of the pioneering media platforms in the nation supported directly by its readership. 

Although the paywall approach was gaining traction then, our primary goal was to keep Mediazona open to everyone due to the unique nature of our reporting. With this in mind, we reached out to our audience, asking those who believe in our mission to ensure we could continue our work.

Throughout our campaign, we’ve been backed by over 30,000 individuals. We’ve gratefully received a myriad of donations, both regular and one-time, of varying amounts. Beyond the financial support, the heartening messages of encouragement we’ve received daily validate the importance of our work.

Yet, donating to independent media outlets like ours is increasingly challenging. We’re labelled by the government as “foreign agents”. With mounting barriers and punitive measures against those aiming to report honestly, many of our readers are understandably hesitant to contribute, fearing potential repercussions. We deeply understand their concerns.

We’re appealing to our global readership now more than ever. With escalating state-led suppression in Russia, your backing becomes increasingly crucial. Please help sustain Mediazona’s efforts in providing essential insights about Russia to its citizens and the wider international community. 

Your continued solidarity means the world to us.

Support Mediazona now!

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