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Russian President Vladimir Putin has shut down independent media from Russia as his country’s invasion of Ukraine continues, putting a harsh spotlight on the Kremlin’s handling of a state-TV staffer who dared to defy the regime.
Carlos Martinez de la Serna, the director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, feels Putin has finally established “total censorship” throughout Russia after years of heading in that direct.
“Under two decades of Putin, there have been different cycles of repression and through those ways of repression the independent space for media continued to shrink. It got smaller and smaller. In the last 20 days what we’ve seen is that space basically disappearing,” Martinez de la Serna told Fox News Digital.
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“There is no space any longer for independent media,” he said. “Russian media, and any journalists working in Russia, right now… they cannot report on the war because to the Kremlin, this is not a war and doing so could make them faces fines and sentences for up to 15 years in jail. It’s an extremely challenging situation.”
During Monday’s evening broadcast on Channel One Russia, the most prominent news network in the country, editor Marina Ovsyannikova rushed onto the set standing behind the anchor and chanted in Russian, “No to war! Stop the war!” By Tuesday, Ovsyannikova was already ordered to pay a fine of 30,000 rubles – roughly $270 –by a Russian court. The Kremlin will also probe her on charges of publicly spreading false information about the Russian military, which could land her 15 years in prison if convicted.
Russia’s official censorship body has issued guidance telling news networks to use only “trusted” sources under penalty of closure, which led to the shutdown of two independent news networks, including Dozhd TV – known in English as Rain TV. The crackdown on independent media has spooked international news outlets, too, as CNN, Bloomberg News, The New York Times and others have all stopped broadcasting out of Russia. The Washington Post even removed bylines and datelines from certain stories to protect Russia-based contributors.
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Fox News contributor and former CIA station chief in Moscow Dan Hoffman echoed Martinez de la Serna’s thoughts on the Kremlin’s treatment of the press.
“In Russia, right now, if you either protest or spill out what they call ‘fake news,’ which is calling Russia’s war a war instead of a special military operation, you go to jail for 15 years,” Hoffman told Fox News Digital. “They’ve increased the repression at home.”
Hoffman feels Putin’s “ruthless” strategy could work in the short term, but people will eventually learn the truth what’s happening across the border in Ukraine.
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“In the long term it’s just not tenable, people are going to know that the government lied to them,” Hoffman said. “If the conflict were over in a day or two it wouldn’t matter so much but the costs of the conflict are so great economically, dead soldiers, that people are going to be upset that they’ve been lied to so much.”
Hoffman pondered how long Putin loyalists will put up with the nonstop propaganda, noting others can turn on the Kremlin like Ovsyannikova did.
“It’s Putin’s war,” he said. “At what point does the military just stop taking orders from him because his propaganda isn’t anywhere close to reality?”
Ovsyannikova’s now-famous sign read in Russian, “Stop the war! Don’t believe propaganda! They’re lying to you here!” with “Russians against war” written in English. She also released a video statement before her viral stunt to denounce Putin and declare she was “ashamed” of working for state media.
“What’s happening in Ukraine is a crime and Russia is the aggressor. And there is only one person responsible for this, this man is Vladimir Putin,” Ovsyannikova said in Russian. “My father is Ukrainian, and my mother is Russian, they have never been enemies… I am ashamed that I let lies be spread on television, I’m ashamed that I participated in turning Russian people into zombies.”
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The broadcast immediately cut away to a pre-recorded report. The anchor, Ekaterina Andreeva, is seen as an iconic figure in Russian media. Channel One quickly released a statement saying it was investigating the incident and TASS, a separate Russian state-owned news agency, reported Ovsyannikova could face significant consequences.
“The girl can be held liable, including under Article 20.3.3. of the Code of Administrative Offenses (Public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in order to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, maintain international peace and security)”, the Russian law enforcement source told TASS, according to the outlet.
Freeman feels that if Ovsyannikova walks away with only a fine, it would be a reflection that Putin is concerned about going too hard on a rogue state-media employee.
“She’s a colleague of a bunch of other people on Channel One, and I guarantee you most of those people on Channel One, they know the truth, and they know that they’re spewing propaganda s—t, and that’s shameful,” he said. “If the Russians slammed her, arrested her, tortured her, did whatever they would do to her or sent her away, then those people on Channel One might just go, ‘I think we’re gonna walk off the job and go do something else.’”
Freeman said Putin is “threading the needle” because he doesn’t want to be too hard but wants state-media staffers to understand they better stay in line.
“This is where you’re starting to see cracks in Vladimir Putin’s Orwellian propaganda machine, and they have to be careful about of much of a crackdown because people will say ‘f—k it, I’m not doing this,” Freeman said. “When you’re a brutal autocracy like Russian you’re threading the needle, you’re trying to scare people into not protesting your evil regime but at the same time you know that if all the people rose up, you’re done.”
Rebekah Koffler, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer and the author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America,” is skeptical about the entire ordeal – but thinks Ovsyannikova would face more than a fine if she truly interrupted state-run media.
“I find it very hard to believe that at Channel One, which is basically the Russian state propaganda… that somebody was able to just run out on Ekaterina Andreeva’s show and do this,” Koffler told Fox News Digital.
“If that is, in fact true, I would expect this person to be not only removed but something even more severe happening to her,” Koffler said.
Ovsyannikova’s “bravery” was hailed on social media, with many comparing her to the iconic “tank man” protestor who famously stood in front of military tanks in Tiananmen Square to protest China in 1989. Mark Savchuk, a coordinator of the Ukrainian Volunteer Journalists Initiative, feels Ovsyannikova is far from a hero, but her actions could make an impact either way.
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“So, all in all we obviously don’t [think] she is a hero, come on, it’s ridiculous. She said herself that ‘we have been lying to you for years,’” Savchuk told Fox News Digital.
“We are not even sure if she is ‘for real’ to be honest, because in Russia s–t like that doesn’t happen. But in either case it was useful on allied countries of Russia,” Savchuk continued. “This is where the benefit is, for example Kazakhstan, who informally is against the war. But officially, doesn’t have the balls to say it. Internet there is not blocked, so lots of people in Kazakhstan saw this and it is good. This is where I see the benefit. There is not [a] benefit whatsoever if we talk about Russia.”
Fox News’ David Rutz, Joseph A. Wulfsohn, Peter Aitken and the Associated Press contributed to this report.