VILNIUS – Russia’s nationalist propaganda machine kicked into high gear after the 2014 annexation of Crimea sparked the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.
State media quickly fell behind the Kremlin line while Russia’s few independent media came under increasing pressure to conform or self-censor.
As Russian authorities shrank the space for independent reporting, one group of Russian journalists escaped the pressure by relocating to the European Union in Latvia’s capital, Riga.
“Because, you know, a lot of white noise propaganda creates some kind of fake agenda. And, we want to provide [a] real agenda to our readers,” says Meduza Project founder Galina Timchenko.
Founder Galina Timchenko of the independent, RussiFounder Galina Timchenko of the independent, Russia-focused, media start-up Meduza listens during an interview in Riga, Latvia, March 30, 2015.
Timchenko was fired in 2014 as chief editor of Russian news website Lenta.ru after publishing an interview with a far-right Ukrainian nationalist that Russia’s state media regulator called “extremist.”
Timchenko says she ran out of time and energy to fight Russian authorities and can work easier in the EU countries.
Baltic countries are willing hosts
In the Baltics, authorities responded to Kremlin propaganda with temporary suspensions for Russian state media that incited unrest. But also by hosting independent Russian media like Meduza.
“Those Russian journalists who left Moscow, who left [Saint] Petersburg, who left Russia and other cities, and who established their own media outlet here and who are also, to some extent, helping to tackle these propagandas,” says Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics.
Meduza battles increased cynicism about Russian politics and current events by focusing on online content and humor to attract young Russians.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks duriRussian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks during a cabinet meeting in Moscow, March 2, 2017.
Use of humor
A big focus is using humor to point out absurd politics and alleged corruption.
During a March visit to their office in Riga, reporters were shown an online game Meduza created, one of many on their website, that has players try to purchase more shoes and shirts than Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
The game refers to Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny’s investigation of alleged corruption linked to Medvedev. The investigation started by tracing who paid for a pair of Medvedev’s sneakers and ended asking the same question about a massive villa estate in Tuscany that Navalny claims is Medvedev’s. Russian officials have dismissed Navalny’s previous allegations, though Medvedev has yet to comment himself.
Target young Russian internet users
Meduza aims to reach internet-savvy young Russians who, unlike 80 percent of their compatriots, are not yet hooked on state television.
“These people have more chances to see another Russia. These people have more chances to see Russia without the current government, the current president. So, that’s why we think that we have to invest all our resources exactly into this audience,” says Meduza Chief Editor Ivan Kolpakov.
But he says they are not activists or opposition media; just reporters trying to do independent journalism.
“And the main thing we’re trying to do, we’re trying to, you know, make news interesting again, Make News Great Again, for the people in Russia,” says Kolpakov with a slight grin in sarcastic reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Older Russians are harder target
Timchenko acknowledges reaching most older Russians is quite a challenge.
“They want to see themselves, with their beliefs and desires, in media. They just do not want to see different views. It’s the most difficult, difficult thing.”
While in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, a news-comedy program is using a similar strategy.
John Oliver and the crew of John Oliver and the crew of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” accept the award for outstanding variety talk series at the 68th Emmy Awards, Sept. 18, 2016, in Los Angeles.
An online show called Laikykites Ten, or “Hang In There,” recently began a Russian-language version making fun of Russian politics.
“Inspiration comes from the — our beloved — Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Also, Jon Stewart, [Stephen] Colbert,” says host of the show and TV journalist Andrius Tapinas.
The show’s name refers to a comment made by Russian Prime Minister Medvedev to a retied woman in annexed Crimea who confronted him in 2016, telling him pensions were too low to keep up with rising costs. Medvedev responded there was no money left in the budget and hastily left shouting “You hang in there. Best Wishes! Cheers! Take care!”
The comments sparked a social media storm.
The crowd-funded, online program uses satire to reach Russian speakers and poke holes in Kremlin propaganda.
“We’re making fun of Russian politics and Russian government. And, that’s where the market is pretty empty, I would say. Because, inside of Russia, it’s not advisable for your health reasons to be very critical or even a tiny bit critical of your government,” says Tapinas.
Like Meduza, Tapinas seeks the next generation of Russians who mainly get their information online, but are fed up with nationalist politics and could use a good laugh.
“When people laugh there is no place for fear,” says Meduza’s Timchenko. “You know, you can make those tough guys silly and stupid and funny and have some joy and to show that news is not boring.”