Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: How to Circumvent Censorship

Digital mock up of Russian and Ukrainian flags next to each other in grey skies

Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine has now entered its second week. As the gruesome armed conflict continues, it is accompanied by a troubling information war affecting those reporting on the ground.

Journalists covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have put their lives in tremendous harm to give the people an honest account of what is going on. To make matters worse, they face a heightened level of censorship. This article summarises some of the most major censorship challenges that journalists and activists are facing.

It also provides tips for how to overcome some of these hurdles and present the facts in a non-partisan manner.

Role of Censorship in Warfare

Military conflict exacts a heavy toll on the nations involved and their people. Historically, wars have decimated lives and entire economies, and their toll lasts long after the conflict ends. Nations need more than geo-political and strategic reasons to justify military conflict. This is why nations try to control the narrative surrounding wars.

Russia and Ukraine are no strangers to controlling the media. In fact, both countries consistently find themselves on the lower rungs of the World Press Freedom Index. Ukraine, to its credit, has seen a recent improvement in its position (97 out of 180), whereas Russia stood at 150 in the 2021 Index.

Censorship by the Russian Government

From the very beginning of the invasion, Russia has tried to control the narrative surrounding its aggression. When Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to enter Ukraine on February 22, he proclaimed it was to “perform peacekeeping functions.”

Consequently, the Kremlin has deployed a number of censorship tactics through its communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, to suppress any reporting that does not align with its messaging. To ensure compliance, the regulator and other Russian authorities use several measures such as levying fines, imprisoning those who don’t comply, and banning journalists or information media from different platforms.

Key examples of recent censorship by Russia in the Ukraine War

  • Journalists face threats, fines, and imprisonment: The Roskomnadzor has issued several guidelines to media houses in Russia, and banned the use of words like “war,” “attack,” and “invasion.” So far, the regulator has prosecuted at least 10 media houses and blocked access to six. Any media house found to not comply may face fines up to 5 million roubles. Reporters without Borders has issued a list of journalists who faced imprisonment or harassment by Russian authorities.
  • Imprisonment of anti-war activists: Apart from journalists, people participating in anti-war protests have also faced sanctions within Russia. As of last week, nearly 6000 protesters were detained by Russian authorities.
  • Crackdown on social media platforms: The Kremlin has accused platforms such as Meta, Twitter, and Google, of being instigators of war. Consequently, it has reduced the amount of traffic to Twitter and partially limited access to Meta’s lineup of social media apps. Russia said these are retaliatory actions to the platform’s “censorship” of Russian state-backed media outlets.
  • Disinformation campaigns on social media: Meta, Google, and Twitter have identified early-stage disinformation campaigns against Ukraine which aim to influence the public discussion on the campaign. The companies claim to have caught some campaigns early and have taken them down.
  • Use of botnet to overwhelm social media accounts: Journalists at German news outlet Frankfurter Rundschau said that their Facebook feeds were flooded with botnet and trolls sharing pro-Putin messages.

Censorship of Russian Media Houses by the EU and Big Tech

In response to the invasion, the United States and the European Union levied a series of sanctions on Russia. The biggest of these sanctions is a coordinated endeavor to ban top Russian banks from SWIFT, the dominant international payments messaging system.

The EU also decided to ban Russian state-backed media outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, calling it an effort to ban “toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe.” Tech giants and social media companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and TikTok have followed suit. They announced their decision to block access to the two media outlets on their platforms in the EU.

While this move aims to curb the spread of disinformation, blocking access to news outlets should be viewed with some concern, especially from a free speech standpoint. It is worth considering if it is better to allow the public to access the narrative pushed by Russia and form their own opinions instead of being completely stripped of it.

However, due to the exceptional nature of this media ban, it is likely to be a hot topic for debate.

Tips for Journalists: How to Overcome Censorship

We have compiled a list of tips and practices to help journalists circumvent censorship and securely report on the conflict:

  • Connect to the internet anonymously: It is crucial for journalists to access websites that may be blocked in their region, and do so without being traced. Using a virtual private network (VPN) can allow reporters to hide their browsing activity from the prying eyes of the Kremlin. You can check out our guide on how to use a VPN to bypass online censorship and freely access the internet.
  • Secure file sharing and cloud data storage: It is crucial to keep information secure and inaccessible. Here is a list of services that offer OpenPGP standard encryption with both startup and digital signature:
  • Encrypted communication: Any communications that you may have needs to be protected. The infamous global hacktivists, Anonymous, who have taken a position against Russia, recommend using Mailfence. If you’re looking for more options, check out this list of private and secure email service providers.
  • Protected web browsing: Using the Tor Network can allow users to protect their anonymity and privacy while using the internet. In fact, Tor hides your internet activity, including the names and addresses of any websites you may visit. Our detailed guide explains how you can install Tor browser on your OS.
Technology policy researcher
Prateek is a technology policy researcher with a background in law. His areas of interest include data protection, privacy, digital currencies, and digital literacy. Outside of his research interests, Prateek is an avid reader and is engaged in projects on sustainable farming practices in India.