January 1, 2024
by Tatyana Margolin, for Politico Europe
One can reliably gauge the latest geopolitical upheaval by who is sleeping on the red pullout couch in my New York apartment.
In the summer of 2021, I was hosting an independent Russian journalist facing criminal persecution in his home country. In the spring of 2022, it was a Ukrainian mom seeking refuge from war. And earlier this year in October, it was my Israeli friend with her family, who left after the horrific attacks and ensuing war.
Now is the time of year when we often hear the phrase “home for the holidays.” But what exactly is “home” for those like my house guests, who have left and can never go back? What does it mean when your home exists but is unrecognizable?
I left my native Belarus in 1994 and have never returned since. My own story mirrors the millions living in a perpetual state of exile, compelled to leave their birthplace due to conflict, political upheaval, religious persecution or the impact of climate change.
At the end of 2022, some 71.1 million people remained displaced within the borders of their own country, with an estimated 36.4 million refugees and 6.1 million asylum seekers worldwide. Moreover, according to the World Bank’s worst-case figures, as water becomes more scarce and agricultural livelihoods are threatened, some 216 million people could move internally by 2050.
Each of these experiences will be unique, but the plight of leaving our birthplaces and redefining what home means — both in the present and for our futures — is one that’s shared.
So, what exactly is a home, and can we have more than one?
We recently asked this question of a group of exiled journalists from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Russia. And their answers varied widely.
“Home is where other people speak my language;” “home is a place with familiar smells;” “home is where my childhood memories live.”
These responses echo my own perceptions of home. That much of what defines home is intangible, that it is a feeling, a sense, a collection of memories.
I have lived in the United States for almost 30 years now — more than twice as long as I lived in my native Belarus. But I hadn’t felt a connection to my “new” home until the Tree of Life massacre — the 2018 synagogue shooting — in my American city of Pittsburgh. As my adopted hometown grieved, I grieved with it. Having walked the intersection where the synagogue sits hundreds of times, I didn’t feel like an exile or a transplant then. And my adolescent memories entangled with the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.
Yet, when Belarus later experienced a pro-democracy uprising in 2020, after its dictator Alexander Lukashenko — already in power for 26 years — attempted to falsify the results of another election, it was as if I was transported to the city of my birth. Glued to social media, fully absorbed in the events taking place there, I acutely felt that this was also happening at home.
Then, when the uprising was violently crushed a few months later, thousands of Belarusians joined me in exile.
A home doesn’t need to be perfect — it often isn’t. They are places we want to improve, challenge and make better for our own generation and the next.
Exiled journalists shoulder much of this responsibility, publishing stories and investigations deemed too perilous for their counterparts back home. They exemplify a new approach to championing human rights, emphasizing the need for a solidarity that extends beyond borders and a more unified fight for justice. They inform, investigate and weave together stories that create a sense of shared community and responsibility. And thanks to the fluidity of today’s technology, enabling collaboration and connection across borders, they are transcending geographic limitations and redefining their roles.
In authoritarian countries like Belarus, internal exile is becoming the norm for such free-thinking citizens, as those who disagree with the dictatorial regime must keep their opinions to themselves, lest they risk prison or worse.
Others leave for a new place, but ties to the old remain. And this enduring connection is especially pronounced among those same journalists and activists committed to bettering their homeland, resisting rights abuses, and challenging the regressive policies that ultimately compelled them to choose exile.
We see this, for example, with Russian independent media, as almost all were forced to leave after the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But even while entire newsrooms were relocating, they didn’t skip a beat, relentlessly reporting on President Vladimir Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine and the escalating repression in Russia.
In an effort to undermine this work and erase dissent, authoritarians often brand such exiles as out of touch. And those who subscribe to this perspective inadvertently prop up strongmen leaders.
So, with half the world preparing for major elections in 2024, now is the time to support these critical voices so essential in shining a light on the truth. We must help fund them, platform their perspectives in Western media, and offer a supportive space to share their ideas and continue their work. Such amplification is essential for a more nuanced and inclusive discourse. And without it, authoritarianism will flourish.
The concept of “home” for the exiled is a complex tapestry woven with threads of memory, resilience and pain. And as we witness the growing numbers of displaced individuals globally, our understanding of belonging must evolve. In this age of exile, let us embrace a broader definition of home — one that extends beyond geographical confines and recognizes the power of shared ideals to unite us all.
Originally published by Politico Europe.
November 29, 2023
by Yelena V. Litvinov, for the Kettering Foundation
I barely had a chance to grieve the gut-wrenching news of Hamas’ pogrom on October 7, 2023, before the familiar drums of war were beating. On October 11, the Israeli Defense Force tweeted, “You either stand with Israel or you stand with terrorism.” It echoed George W. Bush’s nearly identical phrasing just weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
I felt transported back to September 11, 2001, in New York City: first was the shock and pain of loss, and then the immediate anger and disbelief as collective grief was used to justify not only wars abroad but also domestic crackdowns on civil liberties in the US. This ambiguous “war on terror” included increased surveillance codified into law by the Patriot Act; the overpolicing of Muslim communities; and the horrific kidnapping, detention, and torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other secret facilities globally. Over 20 years later, many of these wrongs have not been righted and have become an accepted part of the American political landscape.
Authoritarian-leaning governments deploy numerous strategies to shut down dissent and consolidate power domestically: co-opting independent media, increasing citizen surveillance, restricting internet freedom, limiting the right to protest, and so on. Usually, would-be authoritarians make an initial effort to justify these policies by vilifying their opposition and scapegoating minority populations in the name of “national security.”
War makes the job easier: It’s the ultimate opportunity to diminish civil liberties in the name of “patriotism” and the war effort.
Precedents Set in the Russia-Ukraine War
Vladimir Putin has made full use of war as a tool of domestic repression since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. An already repressive state was made even more so after a March 2022 law amending the criminal code to include “public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” In practice, this law has been used to silence protests and crack down on all remaining independent media. Journalists committed to continued reporting of the truth were forced to flee the country and set up as media in exile simply for calling the conflict a war rather than a special military operation. Thousands of people have been detained and hundreds face criminal charges and prison sentences for speaking out against the war, posting about it on social media, or even holding a blank piece of paper. Teachers have lost their jobs and students have been arrested.
And wartime restrictions are not limited to Russia in this conflict: Ukraine’s government has also been putting limits on its citizens in the name of war. Wartime media restrictions were compounded by the December 2022 legislation that drastically increased the role of the government’s media regulator and the monopoly of state-run media. These restrictions were justified as resistance to Russian disinformation. As a result, independent journalists report increased self-censorship and compounded challenges when reporting on controversial issues such as government corruption. To be sure, there is no need for false equivalencies: Ukraine is fighting a war for its survival and one of Russia’s potent weapons has been its well-financed and sophisticated propaganda machine. But at a time when Ukrainian civil society has resumed its steadfast work of holding its government to account, it is important that critical local voices are able to have broad reach in the name of a more pluralistic and democratic Ukraine.
Silencing Dissent in Israel
Since October 7, 2023, Israel has also been cracking down on freedom of speech and the right to protest. Police have arrested protestors—including former members of Knesset, Israel’s parliament—and Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a police ban on antiwar protests. Emergency regulations have extended the maximum time for detention without a lawyer. On November 8, the Knesset amended the Counter-Terrorism Law to criminalize “the consumption of terrorist materials,” including online content. As a result, Israeli citizens’ social media posts are leading to police questioning, detention, and arrest for alleged “support for the enemy.” Even messages of unity are being silenced. Peace activists were detained for publicly displaying a simple message: “Jews and Arabs, we will get through this together.”
Autocratic Hamas has engaged in years of brutal repressions and restrictions of Palestinians’ freedom of expression in Gaza. But Hamas’ actions do not excuse Israel from adhering to democratic norms and respecting the rights of its citizens. If national trauma is used to secure unchecked power, Israel further diminishes its claims to being a functioning democracy.
It is important to remember that right up to October 7, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets weekly to oppose proposed judicial reforms that would curtail the power of their supreme court. Israelis saw these reforms as a way for Prime Minister Netanyahu to evade his corruption trial and impose authoritarian rule. This protest movement, the largest in the country’s history, warned that their far-right government’s actions were making the country more vulnerable to attack; tragically, they were right. If current protests against Netanyahu grow, it would not be surprising for the government to justify more direct repression to resist the increasingly loud calls for his removal.
A Call to Action for the United States
Even the most unpopular leaders can instrumentalize war to secure unchecked power for themselves and their allies. Would-be authoritarians watch each other and learn from each other’s examples. All of the US presidential candidates for 2024 are noting how war can make domestic policy changes possible.
As a Jewish American immigrant from Ukraine, I am keenly aware that history repeats itself unless citizens pay attention and deliberately push back. I am deeply inspired by the journalists, legal advocates, and ordinary citizens who are standing up for justice and actively resisting the dismantling of democratic norms in times of a national emergency. Prodemocracy leaders within the US can and should learn valuable lessons from the work of these activists.
In Israel, legal advocacy organizations like Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are working to protect freedom of speech and the right to protest. The prodemocracy protest movement has reoriented to direct mutual aid work and is providing essential services to the families of hostages in the stark absence of government support. Peace activists like Peace Now and Standing Together remain committed to Israeli-Palestinian solidarity, even in wartime, and are holding the government to account for its domestic repressions.
Russian independent media like Bumaga, Dozhd, and Proekt have relocated abroad to continue reporting for Russian audiences. Organizations like OVD Info are defending the right to freedom of assembly inside of Russia. In Ukraine, the Institute of Mass Information works to maintain journalistic standards and freedom of speech. Ukrainian independent media like Slidstvo are reporting on the war but also holding their government to account, while legal advocacy groups like the Kharkiv Human Rights Group are documenting Russian war crimes and also defending the rights of Ukrainian citizens, including those held in prisons and police detention.
Now is the time to support these civil liberties champions; direct financial support from the international community strengthens their ability to stand up to authoritarian measures. It is also the time for US civil society organizations to build meaningful relationships with international movement leaders who have direct experience with wartime repression. Examples of effective antiauthoritarian resistance provide valuable lessons to other democracies at risk, and we urgently need these lessons to build our own preparedness.
October 26, 2023
The 2023 Keseb Global Democracy Champions Summit (October 24-26, 2023) focused on "Preparing for the 2024 Mega Election Year." In 2024, half of the world’s populations will participate in elections. Watch Tatyana Margolin's analysis in the Summit highlights reel.
September 19, 2023
The Kettering Foundation's first Emerging Issues Conference took place on September 19, 2023, exploring "the dimensions of authoritarian moves taking place both globally and in the United States, responses and the tensions between potential solutions, and potential ways forward." Watch Yelena Litvinov in the "Countering Authoritarianism x Fostering Citizen Engagement" panel.
July 9, 2023
STROIKA led a panel on "The Authoritarian Playbook: Parallels & Lessons from Russia’s March to Authoritarianism" at the 22nd Century Initiative's conference in Minneapolis, MN. The Forging a People-Powered Democracy Conference convened pro-democracy movements and community leaders to develop strategies for blocking the rise of the authoritarian right.
May 11, 2023
by Yelena Litvinov & Tatyana Margolin, for The Chronicle of Philanthropy
A dissident lawmaker is expelled by the legislature’s majority for supporting a popular protest movement. The lawmaker argues that the move was politically motivated following his participation in a protest. Outside experts call the expulsion a dangerous sign of increasing authoritarianism.
This is not a description of the expulsion last month of two Black Democratic Tennessee lawmakers, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, after they stood with protesters advocating for gun control. Instead, it is an account of an eerily similar event in 2012 when the pro-Kremlin majority in the State Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower house, voted to expel a dissident lawmaker, Gennady Gudkov, for joining anti-Putin protests.
The lawmaker’s expulsion set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of dissent in Russia. Similar tactics are now showing up in the United States, including in the Tennessee case and then a few weeks later in Montana, when Republican state legislators barred Rep. Zooey Zephyr from the House floor for speaking out against a bill banning gender-affirming care for youth.
All of this is straight out of the authoritarian playbook, a set of strategies used by corrupt political leaders to seize and maintain power, consolidate wealth, and repress dissent.
We were both born under the former Soviet Union’s repressive regime. As rights and justice grant makers, we have successfully supported activists in the most challenging and restrictive countries in the Eurasia region, including Russia — first with the Open Society Foundations and now as co-founders of Stroika, where we fund and connect resistance movements around the globe.
We know all too well that authoritarianism doesn’t take hold overnight. The first time something as egregious as expelling democratically elected leaders happens, it seems shocking and unprecedented. The next time, however, it no longer seems quite so horrific. Authoritarians will continue to push the line, further and further.
To be sure, the United States is not Russia. Borrowing lessons from the civil-rights movement, expelled Tennessee lawmakers Jones and Pearson showed what it looks like to fight back and quickly regain their seats. The authoritarian playbook works only when the tactics elicit fear and keep people in line.
Change begins with those who resist. We have witnessed firsthand how supporting passionate and pragmatic advocates — whether they work in organizations, informal movements, or on their own — can thwart authoritarianism and alter history. In this fraught and fragile moment for U.S. democracy, there is much philanthropy can learn from Russian activists about how to help build a stronger antiauthoritarian movement in this country. Here’s what our grant making in Russia and other countries battling autocracy has taught us:
Learn from those who have lived through rising authoritarianism. Campaigns to attack social-change advocates of all stripes — Indigenous climate activists, feminists, independent journalists, and more — are increasingly coordinated, resourced, and connected throughout the world. They are designed to keep movements in a reactive mode, forcing advocates to fight local struggles on their own rather than joining larger efforts to stop authoritarianism.
At the same time, social-change movement leaders are hungry to learn from each other and to work together across issue areas and geographical boundaries. They already see the intersections in their work — whether they focus on reproductive or racial justice, climate or voter protection, labor or trans rights. Jones and Pearson, for example, knew their expulsion was mostly about racism and the stifling of dissenting voices, not guns.
Most progressive donors, however, lack an interdisciplinary approach to funding, keeping movements separate and limiting true collaboration. In the face of encroaching authoritarianism, that must change.
Grant makers can start by taking the simple but critical step of supporting in-person and online gatherings where individuals who are under attack can connect, strategize, and learn from those living through rising authoritarianism. They should then provide generous and flexible funding for activists to experiment and test out the new tactics they’ve learned together.Our organization, for instance, is bringing together 30 intersectional feminist and LGBTQ+ activists from around the world this summer to develop strategies to fight back against political leaders pushing a “traditional values” playbook used by authoritarians from Moscow to Texas to create fear and draw attention away from real problems. We hope to raise another $120,000 for the event so that all participants will leave with seed grants for their work.
Counter misinformation with accurate and hopeful stories. Authoritarians attempt to manipulate public opinion through rapid, continuous, and repetitive lies — or what scholars Christopher Paul and Mariam Matthews call “the firehose of falsehoods.” Getting in front of misinformation or propaganda, instead of refuting falsehoods, is the most effective response. That means priming the public with the correct information and hope-based alternatives to fearmongering — before the lies start escalating.
Jones and Pearson were strategic in calling out the authoritarian tactics that their expulsion represented. They took advantage of this critical moment to draw attention to a frightening shift in U.S. politics, while continuing to speak out for their constituents’ concerns and energize their supporters.
The events in Tennessee have created a valuable opening for broadening the national conversation, not just about authoritarian tactics, but also about the hopeful possibilities for resistance. Philanthropy must ensure that journalists and storytellers are resourced and well trained in how to explain these dangerous trends.
This involves more than investing in a professional cadre of so-called narrative-change consultants. Donors should help build strategic communications skills within progressive movements by investing directly in content creating organizations such as TransLash Media and Scalawag Magazine, political commentators like the abolitionist lawyer Olayemi Olurin, and socially engaged artists. Their voices serve as a powerful antidote to hate and fear.
Fund local movements. States and municipalities have become laboratories for authoritarian tactics. The far right has spent the past decades investing in a big tent of white nationalist and antidemocratic allies at the local level to complement a network of neutral-sounding national and global think tanks and professional groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, CitizenGo, World Congress of Families, and the American College of Pediatricians, all of which push a far-right agenda.
Major liberal donors, after spending years focusing their funding on large international and national organizations, must now play catch-up. Local pushback is critical — and where philanthropic resources are urgently needed today.
Prepare for worst-case scenarios. Anti-nonprofit rhetoric took off during the Trump administration, including questioning sources of nonprofit funding to delegitimize activist movements. This was straight out of the authoritarian playbooks of Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Both men have first vilified donor-funded nonprofits and then used the banking and legal systems to criminalize the nonprofits’ activities and prevent them from receiving financial support.
Donors shouldn’t wait until these tactics arrive in the United States to act. They should immediately start funding and expanding digital, physical, and financial security measures, and emergency plans for organizers and their families. This includes funding security audits and building flexible financial reserves into grantee budgets for emergency use, such as covering legal fees, crisis communications support, and even relocation costs.
Records between donors and grantees that reveal personal information or internal strategic documents should also be secured. Stroika advises donors on how to meet their compliance requirements while minimizing grantee risks in case of a data breach.
Don’t recede into cynicism. Grant makers should be clear-eyed about the similarities between the United States and its more authoritarian counterparts, but also recognize the differences. This country is not living under Putin-like rule. We still have wide space for dissent, a vibrant civil society, and clear pathways to political change, despite deliberate attempts to restrict democratic practice. Enough Tennesseans recognized the unacceptable actions of Republican legislators to reinstate Jones and Pearson to their rightful positions as their representatives.
Ample opportunities remain to act and change America’s authoritarian trajectory before it becomes status quo. This is the moment for donors of progressive movements to let go of American exceptionalism, deepen their understanding of authoritarian tactics, and build forward-looking strategies to prevent further democratic backsliding.
Originally published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
December 16, 2022
February 24th, 2022, will forever be remembered as the day Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. One day later, by sheer coincidence, STROIKA’s formal registration was finalized. We came into existence on the eve of enormous destruction. As an organization whose mission is to build (‘stroika’ means ‘construction site’ in Russian), we realized that we were made for this moment.
Working through a daze of shock and grief, we started a small grassroots fund to raise money for Ukrainian groups we knew and respected, who were not getting adequate support from international aid efforts. We set out to raise $100,000.
The STROIKA Ukraine Fund has exceeded all of our expectations: we have now raised over half a million dollars for the Ukrainian grassroots. By the end of 2022, we will have disbursed over $420,000 to seven local organizations working in public health, human rights, and environmental protection. An additional $100,000 will be going out in January to five feminist organizations, and we continue to fundraise. These funds come at a critical time for the groups, as this brutal war grinds on and a long cold winter with frequent power outages has set in.
Having seen that war is the ultimate tool in the authoritarian toolbox, STROIKA’s mission is all the more urgent: to reverse the tide of rising authoritarianism globally by building, resourcing, and connecting resistance movements around the globe.
In 2023, we will continue to provide networking and fundraising support for exiled journalists who have fled their politically oppressive countries. We will bring together for joint strategizing abortion rights activists working across borders (US/Mexico & Poland/Ukraine), and will pilot strategic communications work to challenge “traditional values” and “anti-gender” narratives in authoritarian contexts. And we are most excited to launch a globally-focused STROIKA Anti-Authoritarian Fund, building on the Ukraine Fund’s success. We look forward to sharing more information with you soon.
We are also continuing to provide consulting support to private philanthropies and international NGOs, both large and small. Maximizing the impact of the ‘social good’ sector is a critical part of our mission, because even the best-intentioned organizations fall short of their purpose when they don’t properly attend to critical internal issues. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to learn more about how we can help.
As this intense year winds down, we offer a very heartfelt thank you for your support. You were with us from our earliest days, and it has meant the world to us.
We wish you and your loved ones a restful holiday season. We hope that the new year is a healthier and more peaceful one for us all.
With deep gratitude,
Yelena & Tatyana
March 3, 2022
by Yelena Litvinov & Tatyana Margolin, for openDemocracy
Vladimir Putin is currently fighting on two fronts: his brutal military assault on Ukraine is accompanied by relentless repression against any hint of opposition inside Russia itself.
His crackdown on Russian civil society started a decade ago, and has peaked since the invasion. More than 7,000 anti-war protestors, including children, have been detained since the start of the invasion, on 24 February. It is also now illegal to use the words ‘attack’, ‘invasion’ or ‘war’ in any publication discussing – well, the war.
Post-Soviet millennials who emigrated to the US in the late 1980s/early 1990s have many memories in common, one of which is of our parents listening religiously to Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL). We learned about the Chernobyl disaster from RFE and RL, not from our government. We got our news from transistor radios. Television was mostly for learning about the next day’s weather (and even those reports were altered – when rain was forecast for Victory Day but the public needed to be brought out to applaud the military parades). Newspapers were for holding sunflower seeds or wrapping fish at the market.
Today, the majority of state-sanctioned Russian media is again only fit to serve as food packaging. But we are no longer in the era of transistor radios, and brave journalists have been risking imprisonment, death threats or exile to provide factual reporting to the Russian public and to the world.
Over the past five years, Russian independent journalists have become global leaders in open-source intelligence investigations and in bringing complex stories to the public in creative and engaging ways. It has been awe-inspiring to watch small start-ups with tiny budgets break stories that reverberate in headlines across the world. It’s no wonder the Russian government is so fearful of an independent media.
On Monday, the prosecutor general’s office ordered two of the remaining independent media broadcasters with a physical presence in Russia – Echo Moskvy radio station and Dozhd TV – to be taken off air and their websites blocked. They were accused of inciting hatred against citizens of Russia with their war coverage. On Thursday, Dozhd announced that it is suspending its broadcasting and Echo Moskvy’s board voted to close the radio station. Both have pledged to continue reporting via social media channels, but this may not be possible for long.
Both broadcasters were providing up-to-the minute updates from Ukraine, and giving a platform to Ukrainian journalists and to Russians who oppose the war. This solidarity used to be the norm. Ukrainian and Russian activists and journalists worked together on issues of human rights and justice until 2014 – when Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea drew a wedge between the two countries’ civil societies. We were beginning to see signs of trust being slowly rebuilt.
Now, despite their divisions, both are bravely collecting the evidence needed for any future accountability for Putin’s war crimes. When the war ends, and the long and arduous journey of rebuilding begins, they will have to be on the front line of any reconciliation efforts.
The world has reacted to Putin’s aggression by slapping its most severe sanctions yet on Russian officials and oligarchs, and many global brands and companies have vowed to stop doing business in Russia. Almost all of Europe’s airspace is now closed to Russian planes. But this inevitable isolation does not bode well for Russian civil society, nor for the brave resistance efforts of its nascent anti-war movement.
Many of the sanctions imposed will have little impact on the complex network of overseas shell companies and foreign real estate where oligarchs continue to hide their assets. Ukraine’s request to ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a key organisation for the operation of the internet), to shut down Russia’s primary servers, would be deeply damaging, leaving the Russian public with government-run platforms as their sole information source.
A decade ago, Russia’s civic activism was by far the most promising in Eurasia. Already operating in a challenging and increasingly restrictive environment, Russian activists were savvy and creative, and incredibly brave. They fought for antiretroviral medication for HIV/AIDS patients, staging die-ins in front of city halls. They scrutinised local government budgets to discover where the money had gone and why their playgrounds were being built on paper only. Human rights activists turned increasingly to the European Court of Human Rights as a mechanism to deliver justice to victims who had exhausted domestic remedies. And independent journalists were reporting on it all. Journalists banned or in exile.
Since then, this professional and vibrant field has been systematically decimated. Many movement leaders are either in exile or their work has been severely circumscribed. Russia has poisoned and jailed most of the remaining elements of the opposition; looked the other way at widespread and factually substantiated allegations of torture in its prisons; and co-opted civil society by cutting off foreign donor funding and replacing it with government-sponsored NGOs.Many top journalists have been forced into exile, after relentless persecution by the regime over the last year, ranging from the designation of individuals and outlets as ‘foreign agents’ to outright bans.
More than ever before, Russian independent media deserves our solidarity and financial support. The West’s social media platforms, which have become a lifeline for Russian journalists, must keep their critical role in mind as they respond to the increasingly punitive penalties and demands of the Russian government. Without a doubt, the Kremlin will not let the recent ban of Kremlin-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik by tech giants such as YouTube and Facebook go unpunished.
Since he came to power at the end of the 1990s, Putin’s rule has been premised on saving Russia from that ‘wild’ decade, when oligarchs ran wild, crime was rampant and people were living in abject poverty. Twenty-two years later, his country is run by oligarchs, the ruble has sunk to historic lows and Russia is mired in a vicious war with its closest cultural and physical neighbour.
Plunging the country back to the era of transistor radios – now in the form of VPNs and secure messaging platforms – will not liberate the people held hostage by Putin’s authoritarian rule. Lack of information helps only dictators. Even in a time of war, we need to support the independent journalists standing between Russian society and a dark tunnel of isolation and propaganda.
Originally published by openDemocracy.
December 15, 2021
by Alexander Cooley & Tatyana Margolin, for Just Security
Even though this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two investigative journalists working in two different authoritarian contexts, autocrats are becoming bolder and more brash in their crackdown on independent media.
A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom watchdog, confirms that the number of jailed journalists has reached an all-time high this year of 293.
Repression and stigmatization are driving journalists into exile. Authoritarians in Belarus and Turkey are designating journalists as “extremists” and “terrorists” in response to their investigations into the corrupt dealings of rulers and their coverage of anti-government protests. Russia’s indiscriminate imposition of the “foreign agent” label, once applied to NGOs, is now increasingly extended to journalists. It is designed to put off advertisers from association with their outlets, ironically pushing journalists to seek the foreign funding they are accused of getting.
Rather than cease journalism altogether, however, a host of Russian reporters and independent media organizations have been forced to flee and carry on their operations and reporting from outside the country. But even in exile, journalists face daunting challenges. They are regularly monitored and hacked, subjected to disinformation and vicious smear campaigns. Many of them are physically attacked or harassed, while seeing their family members intimidated in their home countries in ruthless efforts to pressure them into ceasing their reporting from overseas.
Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, released amid the Biden administration’s Democracy Summit, rightfully recognized support to free and independent media as one of the five priority areas where the U.S. will focus its efforts to strengthen democracy. It was the first stated priority on the list, providing an important acknowledgement of the pivotal role journalism plays in democratic societies. The summit commenced with a panel on media, probing ways in which the international community can support independent media in challenging contexts.
Prevailing Discourse on Relevance
Such coordinated state action is welcome, but it must not overlook support to the growing number of journalists living in exile. So far, there is no cohesive strategy among Western donors about funding exiled media; moreover, there is a prevailing discourse among these donors that exiled journalists are only relevant for a brief period after their departure, and then they are presumed to lose touch and relevance. Even those journalists who receive initial relocation support struggle with what comes next after these funds run out.
Authoritarians force journalists into exile and then stigmatize them as hopelessly out of touch with local developments. This was a tactic applied to dissidents forced to flee abroad in the Soviet times (think Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Vasiliy Aksyonov), and it continues to be tried-and-true today. Western media outlets and donors that accept this framing may inadvertently support this deliberate erasure of dissenting voices. They also advance a dated stereotype that somehow only reporters allowed to physically reside within a home country are qualified to break news or conduct detailed investigations.
Today’s exiled journalists accept the fundamental insecurity of their profession. They would prefer to do their jobs in their home countries, but are willing to bounce around among digital publications and start-up platforms abroad as the only way they can still pursue their chosen careers. They are tech savvy — indeed, being exiled increasingly demands a mastery of social media and the command of new digital tools — and are keen to collaborate with colleagues from other countries within broader global networks, such as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). One Belarusian journalist working from Poland described her current circumstances as working remotely, like so many others in the midst of a global pandemic.
Supporting Exiled Journalists
To better support exiled journalists, Western civil society and media partners will have to discard outdated notions about what makes a journalist relevant. First, they should recognize that digital platforms now blur the once strict lines between walled off exile and local reporters. Overseas media organizations like Meduza – a Latvia-based group of Russian journalists (also designated “foreign agents” by the Russian government) – maintain extensive contacts to cover developments within their own countries. Their coverage is disseminated in Russia and abroad, making them one of the 10 most-cited internet sources in Russian last year.
Digital tools also allow exiled journalists to pump their own reporting back into closed countries. Indeed, Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian journalist in exile in Lithuania whose flight in May from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk following a fabricated bomb threat traced back to Belarus’s security services – was labelled a terrorist by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko precisely because the Telegram channel where Protasevich was the editor, Nexta, covered opposition demonstrations and added hundreds of thousands of new followers who wanted to understand the protests. Protasevich remains in detention in Minsk.
Second, philanthropists need new measures of what constitutes “impactful” journalistic work. Western donors have become accustomed to applying the “capacity-building” model to foreign journalists, supporting their training with the objective of them returning to their home countries. But these assumptions no longer hold in these increasingly hostile domestic environments. Impactful work for some exiled journalists means conducting complex investigations from afar, while for others it may mean teaming up with foreign colleagues, as in the case of the OCCRP and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (most recently of Pandora Papers fame). Still for others, it will mean finding a safe space within overseas journalism schools and think tanks that allows them to both retool and share their experiences with other reporters confronting similar illiberal tactics – including many in the West itself.
Third, Western media outlets also have a role to play. Large news organizations often work on similar stories as their exiled counterparts. They can learn from their reporting and access their networks. Roman Badanin – the editor of the now-banned Russian investigative outlet Proekt– conducted an earlier investigation into Russian dealings in Africa to the one by the New York Times that was awarded the Pulitzer in 2020. He reminds us that even the simple act of linking to an exiled news source confers visible legitimacy and provides security for the embattled journalists.
Having nearly exterminated all independent media, autocrats are targeting social media platforms next, precisely because they allow dissenting voices to reach millions from abroad. Now is the time to help build resilience: platforms should be conferring with exiled journalists and resisting authoritarians’ pressure in this impending standoff. Without access to these digital tools the important and increasingly relevant voices of even exiled journalists will be silenced.
Originally published by Just Security.
November 11, 2021
by Gillian Kane & Tatyana Margolin, for The Moscow Times
There is much debate about a new “cold war” between Russia and the U.S., but one tactic illiberal politicians on both sides of the Atlantic agree on is embracing “traditional values” to cover up their own failings. Far-right demagogues from Moscow to Texas increasingly incite moral panic to stir up tensions and deflect from domestic troubles.
In late October, forever Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual speech at the Valdai Discussion Club. Despite the pandemic entering its deadliest phase in Russia, he did not address public health measures and instead chose to rail against “cancel culture” and gender-segregated bathrooms in the West.
Putin’s speech is part of a deliberate, tried-and-tested playbook, both at home and abroad, to consolidate power and distract from governance failures by inflaming social tensions. It cannot be brushed aside as simply theatrics because it has real implications for an alignment of authoritarian tactics and manipulation of values across borders.
Since Russia introduced its 2013 law banning “homosexual propaganda,” it has become an enthusiastic exporter of conservative ideologies, sometimes to the least expected places. During the 2018 anti-government protests in Sudan, Russian so-called “political strategists” with ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a nefarious oligarch close to the Kremlin, instructed the Bashir regime to plant pro-LGBT flags among demonstrators to undermine their credibility.
Reinforcing its image as a normative counterweight to the West, the Kremlin can secure access to other authoritarian states and their resources.
Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas is faithfully using the same tactics of distraction. In the lead up to next year’s midterm and gubernatorial elections, he has managed to shift the conversation away from his mishandling of the pandemic, chronic energy supply problems, and growing voting rights restrictions, towards divisive social issues.
Last week he signed the controversial House Bill 25, which bans transgender children from participating in sports. Earlier this year he championed Senate Bill 8, now before the Supreme Court, banning abortions before most women know they are pregnant and holding criminally culpable those who “aid and abet” abortions.
Rather than occupying opposing sides of a new ideological Cold War, Republicans and global authoritarians around the world — who may come from different political, cultural and social contexts — use alarmingly similar tactics. They are manipulating ‘traditional values’ narratives, which serve as a cultural cudgel to incite the population, and cause real harm, especially to women, LGBTI people, and other minorities. And the damage is not just local. Globally, authoritarians are aligning to disrupt multilateral spaces and undermine democratic values by creating shadow, parallel systems.
A week after Putin’s Valdai speech, Russia signed the Geneva Consensus Declaration — an anti-abortion document, initiated by the Trump administration, that unites a coalition of largely authoritarian governments with abysmal records on women’s rights and human rights. On that same day, both the U.S. Senate and House Republicans introduced a resolution celebrating the declaration's first anniversary.
The consensus’ grandiose name provides cover for a toothless anti-abortion manifesto. Despite the fact that it carries no political weight, is not legally binding, nor provides mechanisms for government accountability, boosters are presenting it as a normative document that commits signatory countries to anti-abortion policies.
It is telling that the Russian government did not even bother to put out a press release or champion its signature in state media. Most Russians have relatively progressive — or at least apathetic — views on reproductive rights. Despite this, the consensus is a symbol of an alarming trend, and an attempt to consolidate a global conservative vision.
Putin joins a crowded field of autocrats aligning themselves around a regressive set of social values as a tactic to distract from self-manufactured disasters at home. When Putin says Westerners should “steer clear of our home, we have a different viewpoint,” it is a smokescreen to strengthen his own grip on power and eliminate dissent.
We should better understand these shared authoritarian strategies so their playbook is less effective. Cross border journalistic investigations should expose how tactics overlap between countries and cultures, and expose the money flows behind them.
Investigating how targeted populations are impacted by these harmful policies must be top of the agenda for global policy makers. It is also crucial to remember that it is not just minorities who suffer. The erosion of democratic values affects us all.
Originally published by The Moscow Times.
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