Meduza’s strategies to outwit Kremlin censorship shared with 25th ISOJ audience

The co-founder, CEO, and publisher of Meduza — the largest Russian-language independent media outlet published in both Russian and English while operating in exile — shared the news site’s challenges fighting Russian censorship at the 25th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) on April 12.

Woman at podium

Galina Timchenko, left, co-founder, CEO, and publisher of Meduza, a news outlet exiled from Russia, discusses efforts to circumvent censorship and persecution. Kathleen McElroy, a UT journalism professor, chaired the keynote session at the 25th ISOJ on April 12. (Patricia Lim/Knight Center)

For Galina Timchenko, whose keynote session was chaired by UT Journalism Prof. Kathleen McElroy and was titled “Mission Impossible: Meduza’s 10 years of experience beating Kremlin censorship”, it was a happy return to the University of Texas at Austin. Timchenko spoke at ISOJ in 2016.

“When I first visited Austin, I was so happy because Russian media managers and Russian journalists are not used to sharing their experience, their problems, and challenges, and finding solutions. Russians are very good at speaking about their successes and achievements.

“When I first visited Austin, I said, ‘God, I’m in heaven. Everybody is talking about challenges and solutions.’ So now I’m here, and I want to share with you our problems, our challenges, and maybe some solutions.”

For nine years, Meduza’s editorial team has operated from exile, enduring escalating persecution. In April 2021, Russian authorities designated the media outlet as a “foreign agent” in a bid to slash its advertising revenue.

Since Russia’s attack in February 2022, Meduza has vehemently opposed the invasion of Ukraine, prompting Vladimir Putin’s government to block it within Russian territory. Finally, in January 2023, the Kremlin banned Meduza entirely, labeling it an illegal “undesirable organization.”

Despite these challenges, Meduza has maintained its audience through a diversified and technologically advanced infrastructure, reaching millions in Russia. Timchenko shared this experience of operating under constant persecution and developing strategies to continue disseminating independent information.

“I’d like to talk about how Meduza was established and how Russia became very advanced in censorship, and why we are still alive,” Timchenko summarized.

A history of persecution

The story of Meduza, according to Timchenko, began in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine. At that time, Timchenko served as editor-in-chief of Lenta.ru, then Russia’s leading independent outlet.

“I was fired in a minute and replaced with a pro-Kremlin guy. Now, he’s working for the Kremlin administration as a deputy head of inner policy. He replaced me, and almost all my staff resigned, all my journalists resigned in protest,” Timchenko said.

Fifteen journalists relocated to Riga, Latvia, while three remained in Moscow. At the time, Kremlin censorship was still rudimentary, but that would soon change.

According to data she presented, there were 887,000 websites blocked in Russia in 2023, compared to 3,800 in 2021. All independent social networks, VPNs, TOR, and traditional censorship evasion methods were targeted.

Meanwhile, Russian media became increasingly propagandistic, while maintaining the appearance of independence, Timchenko said.

“They started what I called a zombie media system. When they took over media control, they just changed editors and chiefs or journalists, and you have the same logo, you have the same design, but the media is dead from inside. Even those business media like Kommersant, a very popular Russian newspaper, they are zombie media because the logo is the same, but they are dead from inside,” Timchenko said.

This operation was only possible by technically skilled young professionals collaborating with Vladimir Putin’s regime, Timchenko added.

“We have a new generation, I call them Putinoids. They’re a younger generation of developers or technically driven youngsters. They have the only chance of a social elevator to work for the government, and they do not know any other system than Putin’s regime. Putin’s regime provides them with a huge amount of money, with huge possibilities, huge opportunities in their lives, so they started to develop very, very fast,” Timchenko elaborated.

When Meduza was designated a foreign agent in 2021, the site faced “financial collapse” due to the loss of all advertising revenue, Timchenko said. Twelve journalists resigned.

A crowdfunding campaign rescued the site.

“We decided, ‘What do we have? We have an audience.’ And we openly said, ‘Guys, we have nothing, but you, please help us save Medusa,'” Timchenko recounted. “Our crowdfunding campaign was the biggest crowdfunding campaign in Russia; 177,000 people supported us financially. Young designers made merch too and made revenue share with us. So, in half a year, we totally replaced all our advertising revenue. We received more than 3 million euros in donations through the crowdfunding campaign, so we survived.”

Surviving amid war

Timchenko described Feb. 24, 2022, the night of the invasion of Ukraine, as “one of the scariest nights of my life.” Even the word “war” was — and continues to be — prohibited from use in Russia, replaced by the euphemism “special military operation.”

Following its blocking in January 2023, Meduza faced a declaration of being “undesirable” on Russian soil.

“What does it mean to be an ‘undesirable organization’? Every direct connection with us is a crime. I’m a criminal. Plenty of options, from two years in prison for so-called fake news to high treason for 20 years in prison. I am the head of an ‘undesirable organization’. So, according to the Russian state, I’m a criminal,” Timchenko said.

The journalist attributed Meduza’s survival to its technical department, described as the “heart and brain” of the outlet.

Meduza’s mobile app, Timchenko stated, includes five tools to bypass censorship and “works perfectly within Russia.” There’s also a “Magic link” tool that creates a unique URL for each webpage, which can be shared to evade authorities’ blocks.

Meduza also has a special design for PDFs, which, according to the presentation, are downloaded over 200,000 times per month.

In journalistic terms, Meduza says it employs 140 freelancers operating anonymously within Russia, allowing it to publish 90 stories written from within the country per month. There is also what Timchenko referred to as “proxy media”: another outlet, which has permission to operate within Russia, conducts interviews and reports from within, later published by Meduza.

“Our main power is negative thinking. We are huge fans of the book by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’. His main thought is that negative thinking is a power. You have to predict what could kill you in the next five minutes, five days, five weeks. We started to do this,” Timchenko said. “Every three months, we develop disaster scenarios, what could kill us next. And we started to make action plans. Unfortunately, the worst scenarios became true many times.”

The persecution continues at present. Timchenko recounted how her phone was invaded by the spyware software Pegasus.

“For what purpose did they want to see into my iPhone? What did they see? Nude photos? I do not have them, only photos of my very proud plum pie that I baked using the recipe from The New York Times,” Timchenko said.

The journalist’s forecast for the future was bleak. In the future, the Russian internet may disconnect from the rest of the global network, becoming a domestically restricted service.

“All global services will be replaced with native ones. Bypassing blockings will be available only for youngsters or technically driven readers, and they are searching and finding appropriate content as fast as possible,” Timchenko said.

Nevertheless, Meduza hopes to once again escape persecution and censorship, to deliver independent and quality information to the public, Timchenko added.

“But we’re going to survive again, and we have some tricks.”

ISOJ is a global online journalism conference organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2024, it is celebrating 25 years of bringing together journalists, media executives and scholars to discuss the impact of the digital revolution on journalism.

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