Friday, December 9, 2022

Opinion | Why the New York Times pulled its journalists from Russia over censorship law

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“To my knowledge, the New York Times has never done this before,” said Michael Slackman, the Times’s International editor, in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog. Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha issued this statement: “Russia’s new legislation seeks to criminalize independent, accurate news reporting about the war against Ukraine. For the safety and security of our editorial staff working in the region, we are moving them out of the country for now. We look forward to them returning as soon as possible while we monitor the application of the new law. We will continue our live, robust coverage of the war, and our rigorous reporting on Russia’s offensive in Ukraine and these attempts to stifle independent journalism.”

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The Times isn’t the solely main media group scrambling since the law’s adoption. The BBC introduced on Tuesday that it could resume reporting in Russia, after suspending that work last week. accuratenewsinfo, CBS News and ABC News have stated that they would stop broadcasting in or from Russia, while accuratenewsinfo News has suspended its staffers’ work in the country. The Post on Saturday said it would remove bylines and datelines from certain stories. “We want to be sure that our Moscow-based correspondents are not held responsible for material that is produced from beyond Russia,” reads a statement from the newspaper.

According to Slackman, the Times held legal consultations with counsel in Russia and huddled with security and legal staff at the newspaper. One concern is that the new anti-media law provides multiple avenues to seek punishment of journalists. “It appears they’re setting up a situation where they have a tool at there disposal to basically go after journalists without saying it’s because they don’t like the story,” he says, noting that the authorities could cite “technical reasons” for taking action.

“The law criminalizes what they call ‘fake’ news and they are the arbiters of what is fake news, so I don’t even know how you navigate that,” says Slackman. Among the offenses that could be criminalized under the law: calling the ongoing hostilities a “war,” as opposed to the Kremlin’s preferred “special military operation.”

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The new authoritarian law will frustrate reporting on Russia’s suppression of dissent over the Ukraine invasion. Police detained more than 4,300 people in protests on Sunday, according to Reuters. The Times’s coverage of the protests carried the byline of Anton Troianovski, the newspaper’s Moscow bureau chief, but did not include a Russian dateline. “We want to be in the streets of Moscow. We want to be able to talk to residents,” says Slackman, including about how Western sanctions are affecting the lives of Russians.

But the relocation of the Times journalists means that, with no one on the ground, reporters must use email, phone, social media “and then some” to gather news from Russia. “The stakes are so high and the penalties so severe, we just felt it was prudent to buy some time,” says Slackman. “We will not put anyone at risk of arrest and a lengthy prison term. We just won’t do that.”

While there’s on-the-ground reporting from Russia is as valuable as ever, U.S. media organizations are correct to proceed with caution as they plan their coverage. In the two decades-plus of Putin’s rule, 28 journalists have been killed in Russia, and plenty of extra have been harassed, arrested and imprisoned. That’s a observe file to plan round.

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