How Investigative Journalism Flourished in Hostile Russia

“The audience doesn’t care if you bought data or got it from a source,” said Roman Anin, founder of iStories, a non-profit Russian investigative agency with 15 employees. He said he found that “since we’ve lived in a country where authorities kill opposition leaders, we’ve forgotten these rules because these stories are more important than our ethical rules.”

Recognition…The New York Times

This portal into the world of Vladimir Putin opened when some American journalists covering Russian interference in the 2016 elections produced overheated essays and viral Twitter threads. They cast Mr. Putin in the American imagination as an all-powerful puppet master and anyone whose name ends with the letter “v” as his agent. But they were real Russians running their websites on the verge of legality or from abroad, opening windows into Putin’s real Russia. And what they uncovered is incredible personal corruption, shadow figures behind international political interference, and murderous but sometimes incompetent security services.

Here are some examples of these revelations:

  • The nonprofit investigative firm Proekt identified Putin’s “secret family” and found that the woman it linked to the president had made around $ 100 million in fortunes from sources tied to the Russian state.

  • IStories used a ton of hacked email to document how Putin’s former son-in-law built a huge fortune from state connections.

  • The London-based company Bellingcat and the Russia-based Insider identified by name and photographically the Russian agents who poisoned the defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in 2018.

  • The media group RBC dealt with the political machinery behind the troll farm, which meddled in US elections.

  • Meduza exposed deep corruption in every corner of Moscow’s city government, right down to the funeral home.

  • Mr Navalny’s foundation flew drones over Mr Putin’s palace, a huge Black Sea estate, which Mr Navalny in a devastating, almost two-hour video posted on his return to Russia last month, as “the world’s greatest bribe “Designated. The video has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube.

There is currently a tendency in parts of the American media to reflexively decipher the rise of alternative voices and open platforms in social media, viewing them solely as conveyors of misinformation or tools of Donald J. Trump. Russia is a powerful reminder of the other side of this story, the power of these new platforms to challenge one of the most corrupt governments in the world. For this reason, Navalny, for example, loudly criticized Twitter’s decision to ban Mr. Trump, calling it an “unacceptable act of censorship”.

The new Russian investigative media are also decidedly on the Internet. And much of it started with Mr. Navalny, a lawyer and blogger, who developed a style of YouTube investigation that relied more on the lightweight meme-y formats of that platform than on heavily produced documentaries or newsmag investigations.

Mr. Navalny doesn’t pretend to be a journalist. “We use investigative reporting as a tool to achieve our political goals,” said his advisor, Ms. Pevchikh. (A convention they don’t follow: receive comments from the target of an investigation.) Indeed, his relationship with independent journalists can be complicated. Most are careful to maintain their identities as independent actors rather than activists. They criticize him, but also share their stories with him in the hope that he will make them known to his own broad audience, and he publicly criticizes them for being too gentle on the Kremlin.

The new news outlets also learned from Mr. Navalny. Many of them mimicked his style on YouTube. And he proved that certain limits could be exceeded. In addition, everyone undoubtedly benefits from the homogeneity of the television channels. Imagine how much YouTube you would see if the only news channels available were Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN.

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