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Many Russians trying to skirt country's strict censorship laws despite severe penalties

Marina Ovsyannikova protests Ukraine invasion on state TV's Channel 1
Posted at 11:28 AM, Mar 17, 2022

A state TV employee interrupted Russia's most-watched news show Monday, an act of defiance that has gone viral outside and inside the country despite the Kremlin's ramped-up censorship efforts.

The employee held up a sign that said, "No war ... Don't believe the propaganda. They're lying to you here."

"I am not completely surprised, given the fact that every second family in Russia has some relatives in Ukraine — including my family. And this woman, she also has her family in Ukraine," said Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, who is currently in exile in London.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law criminalizing any dissent or independent reporting about the war, with up to 15 years in prison for those who disobey.

"The level of both censorship and propaganda that we're currently seeing in Russia is unprecedented," said Coda Story Co-Founder Natalia Antelava.

It's now a crime in Russia to call the war a "war." The Kremlin and state media call it a "special military operation."

"To see so many people believe that Ukraine is a country run by's terrifying," Soldatov said.

Soldatov says most Russians believe what they see and hear on state TV, including the claim that Russian troops have only been deployed in two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as peacekeepers.

"When somebody tells them, 'Look, you have Kyiv besieged. You have all these airstrikes,' they act very surprised," Soldatov said.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing protests at home, the Kremlin has moved to block a growing number of websites. Among them are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, BBC News, Voice of America and nearly all independent Russian news outlets.

"All the independent Russian journalists have mostly left the country or have been forced to shut down," Antelava said.

Still, as highlighted by the protest on live TV, the Kremlin's grip on information is not absolute.

"There is a way to get around the Kremlin's line if you are making an effort to do so," Antelava said.

That's mostly through virtual private networks, or VPNs, that allow Russians to access blocked sites. So far, Russia has had limited success in shutting them down — and they've been gaining in popularity since the beginning of the war.

Researchers at have found that demand for VPNs in Russia has increased by nearly 2,700% in recent days.

Voice of America says it's receiving 40% of its Russian traffic through users with a VPN.

"They will use VPNs to access blocked websites to see the real story of what's happening in Ukraine," said Simon Migliano,'s head of research. "However, the reality is that's a minority of people."

Also, the crackdown could intensify, as Russia is now considering labeling Facebook an "extremist organization." Officials are also stopping people on the street to check their smartphones.

"If you have this icon of Facebook on your smartphone, you can be accused of supporting an extremist organization," Soldatov said.

Soldatov and Antelava say now, more than ever, Western journalists need to keep informing Russians about what's really happening in Ukraine.

"I was born in the Soviet Union, and my early childhood memories are of my mother glued to shortwave radio, listening to the BBC and listening to Radio Liberty because she was desperate to get the real news," Antelava said. "Even if it's very few who listen and who get a hold of that information, that information is invaluable for people now."

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