What Russian Journalists Uncovered About Russian Election Meddling - The Atlantic

Much of 2017 was consumed with untangling the political mess that was 2016 and Russia’s role in it. Much of what we learned came from  American journalists, who brought us revelation after revelation about how the Kremlin meddled in the presidential election. Through these reporters’ domestic sources—in the White House, Congress, and the intelligence community—we learned how Russians bought Facebook ads aimed at sowing division; how Russian government agencies hacked the Democratic National Committee and congressional races; how Russians loosely affiliated with the Kremlin reached out to the Trump campaign; and how the Kremlin turned the popular Kaspersky Labs anti-virus software into a spying tool.

Very little information came from the other side—from Russian journalists. Arguably, we learned far more from their stories about Russian campaign interference than from American news stories. Yet you can count on one hand the stories about it published in Russian media.

Here’s a rundown of what we learned from the Russian press this year:

Why has there been so little reporting on Russian election interference coming out of the place that perpetrated it? For one thing, the Russian security services and the Kremlin do not leak, at least not nearly as much as their American counterparts, and they are suspicious of Western journalists, of whom there are fewer and fewer these days. Russian government officials also “don’t like talking to independent journalists, but they’re still better to talk to than to American journalists,” said Liza Osetinskaya, a legendary Russian editor who now runs The Bell.

The problem is that independent journalism in Russia has been decimated. Even if those on the inside are willing to talk to a local journalist, there are fewer and fewer of them around. After returning to the Kremlin for a third term, Putin cracked down on the independent press. The Kremlin put pressure on the businessmen who owned these media outlets, as well as on advertisers and cable and satellite networks to squeeze the space in which independent media had flourished during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. Several outlets were shut down, and people like Osetinskaya were pushed out by business owners wary of Kremlin pressure, in favor of more loyal, and less enterprising, editorial teams.

Osetinskaya, who oversaw investigations of Putin’s family’s wealth, was pushed out of the more mainstream RBC, and now runs The Bell from the Bay Area with a skeleton crew of reporters and editors scattered all over the world. It’s no coincidence that it was this outlet that produced such a detailed and explosive report. TVRain, which broke two of the stories summarized above, was nearly shuttered under Kremlin pressure in 2014. Instead, it was left for dead as an online-only channel. Its reach, along with its advertising revenue, and, consequently, its salaries, are a fraction of what they were just five years ago.

Facing this kind of political and economic pressure, many of Russia’s journalists—many of them among the country’s best—either left home or abandoned the profession altogether. This is apparently the case with the journalists who published the RBC report on the troll factory: After receiving threats, they left journalism. What we are witnessing “is the last phase of the death of independent Russian media,” Galina Timchenko said at last summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival. She is another well-known Russian editor forced out under Kremlin pressure. She now runs the independent Meduza from Latvia. It has a fraction of the reach of the outlet she ran for a decade, Lenta.ru.

The squelching of press freedom and the shuttering of independent media abroad is, in other words, not an academic matter. As 2017 has shown, when these voices are silenced, we know far less than we need about vital national security interests. If the violation of an abstract principle doesn’t bother you, its very concrete repercussions should.