When Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova interrupted Monday’s nightly news with an anti-war protest, most figured her stunning act of political courage would be brutally punished. But she’s received just a small fine and continues to move and speak freely in Moscow. Paradoxically, it may actually be the final tack in Vladimir Putin’s brutal, unpredictable propaganda machine.
It was a lone act of extreme political courage that brought the world back to the 1989 images of “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square.
On the night of March 15, Marina Ovsyannikova, a veteran journalist on Russia's leading state TV newscast, burst into the studio holding up a sign that read "No war ... you are being lied to here."
The defiant act came in a country where critics of the government are poisoned, journalists jailed simply for covering protests, and with a new law last week: anyone who even refers to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine as a “war” can expect up to 15 years in prison.
Putin's propaganda formula
Yet for her frontal challenge to Vladimir Putin, seen in prime time by tens of millions of Russians, Ovsyannikova was only required to answer to an administrative court and fined a mere 30,000 rubles, less than $300. By Wednesday, she was appearing on CNN to slam the war again.
What explains the mere slap on the wrist? Why didn’t Putin just pack her off to the Gulag?
The first response is that Ovsyannikova is not yet out of the woods, and could face criminal prosecution in the future. The second, mentioned by several political observers in Russia, is that the Kremlin feared a negative reaction of sending a high-profile mother of two to prison.
It's a strongman's head fake.
Yet ultimately, the incident reveals a subtle truth about Putin’s propaganda formula: the repression of freedom must never arrive at 100% for it to have maximum impact. In other words, there must always be room for the proverbial “exception that proves the rule,” a strongman’s head fake to keep everyone off balance.
Indeed, the authoritarian bent of post-Soviet Russia never reached near the severity of China and North Korea, for example. Moscow and St. Petersburg had long included a flourishing independent press and mostly open access to the Internet. Yet since he began his second term in office, Putin’s expanding use of censorship has been slowly squeezing the independent media in Russia towards oblivion.
Don't call the war a war
After the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbas in 2014, Kremlin propaganda was ratcheting up at full speed, pressing even harder on remaining publications and journalists. By 2017, a new law was passed that used the label “foreign agents” to stifle press outlets and NGOs that don’t serve as mouthpieces for the government. In the months and weeks before the invasion, limits on freedom multiplied.
On March 4, the Russian Duma and Federation Council approved amendments to the Criminal Code that included the penalties of up to 15 years in prison for “false reports” on the use of the Russian armed forces, Kommersant reported. That includes the ban on calling the conflict a “war,” replaced with the phrase "military operation.” The use of the banned word has led to the arrest of not only journalists but also activists and even church officials.
All of the media outlets that had previously been listed as foreign agents were shut down, their websites shut down, and their editorial offices raided and arrested. Echo Moskvy, Meduza, Dozhd, Present Time, Krym.Realii and others were subjected to censorship and have effectively ceased to exist. Famous blogger Ilya Varlamov was forced to stop covering this topic on his YouTube channel after several videos about the war, while another well-known blogger, Maxim Katz, continues broadcasting from abroad.
Dmitry Muratov in 2018 in Bonn, Germany
Novaya Gazeta lives (sort of)
A window is still cracked open for a tiny handful of independent media, and other free voices in today's Putin's Russia, Either it is because Putin fears taking away the last crumbs of freedom from Russian citizens and thus awakening a popular revolt or the transformation into a totalitarian regime is simply still not quite complete.
George Orwell taught us that the elimination of freedom of speech is the form of totalitarian oppression that serves all the others. "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."
We are terribly ashamed to take this step.
Earlier Russia's last remaining major independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief won last year's Nobel Peace Prize, published a message to its readers: "Today the Russian parliament has finally introduced military censorship without actually declaring it. We news journalists can get up to 15 years in camps for "spreading deliberately false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces. "Deliberately false" information is data on prisoners, people killed, and the shelling of civilians in Ukraine. We are asked to admit that none of this happened."
The editorial board decided not to leave Russia but also not to publish the official information of the Russian Defense Ministry: "We are terribly ashamed to take this step while our friends, acquaintances, and relatives are going through real hell in Ukraine. And on both sides. We remain to cover a huge range of topics," the newspaper writes. “But trying to 'feed' the reader a picture of reality with only bulletins from the Russian Defense Ministry and news from peaceful life? No, that will never happen.”
Cause and effect
The war in Ukraine is both cause and effect of a final end to any semblance of freedom in Putin’s Russia. For many Russians, especially those whose news and information diet is not limited to state-run outlets, the brutal invasion of a neighbor was also the last straw in tolerating the regime.
That was by all accounts the case for Marina Ovsyannikova, who indeed had spent years participating in the propaganda. After her dramatic on-air gesture, Putin dismissed her as a traitor, a tool of foreign agents. By now we also know that this one man could decide at any given moment to level whatever punishment he sees fit. Whether facing a mother of two or not, we see what he’s unleashed against civilians in Ukraine.
Still, after her court appearance alongside her young lawyer dressed in fashionable casual clothes, Ovsyannikova held an impromptu press conference on the steps of the courthouse. The scene looked strikingly familiar, the modern choreography of free speech in action. But look again: the reporters are asking questions in English, Ovsyannikova responds in English. It will never be seen on Russian TV so long as Vladimir Putin is in charge.
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