Yegor Skovoroda knew that his work and life were facing upheaval five days after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.
Russian authorities blocked the news website Mediazona, which is known for its investigations into the regime of Vladimir Putin and where Yegor is an editor.
Then a few days later, on 4th March 2022, the Russian parliament passed legislation that severely restricted discussion of the invasion, and criminalized the spreading of “fake news”, with penalties of up to 15 years. Even calling it a “war” or “invasion” was prohibited.
“Silence, prison or immigration”
“We knew we had a choice between silence, prison or immigration,” Yegor says.
“Silence and prison weren’t options for us. So we moved abroad.”
Wanting to report freely on the war, most of the Mediazona team left Russia. In March, Yegor fled to neighbouring Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. But he still did not feel safe and felt it was too difficult to get a residence permit.
He spoke to connections at Freedom House, a US-based human rights organisation. It helped organise a visa providing safe refuge for him in Lithuania.
Since the end of July last year he’s lived in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. About one third of Mediazona’s 40 strong team also gained refuge there. Other staff are in various countries in Europe and Central Asia.
Lithuania is one of a number of countries in the Media Freedom Coalition that have been providing safe refuge to journalists, including the Czech Republic, Latvia, Estonia, Canada, Germany, Kosovo and Costa Rica.
Safe refuge became a key issue for the coalition’s countries to address after the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, which advises MFC member states, published its Report on Providing Safe Refuge to Journalists at Risk in 2020.
The report highlighted how scores of journalists are forced to leave their countries to escape threats to their safety every year and recommended the creation of emergency visas for journalists at risk.
According to the MFC’s 2022 Activity Report, over 1,400 journalists and human rights defenders were provided with safe refuge across eight member countries in 2022.
Receiving safe refuge in Lithuania has permitted Yegor to continue his work.
“Lithuania has a key role in this because its government policy is to help people who are persecuted by the Russian government,” Yegor says.
“When you are a journalist in Russia for many years you are used to being nervous about any call at your door.
“I don’t feel anything like this here.”
“They gave me freedom”
Dmitry Kolezev, the editor-in-chief of independent outlet Republic.ru, similarly fled from Russia to Turkey before being given safe refuge in Lithuania.
“They gave me freedom. It’s the most important thing,” Dmitry says. “I got a safe place to continue my work.
“I left Russia as I want to tell the stories I want to tell.”
Dmitry says that he started being more critical of the Russian government from 2014, when it took the Ukrainian Crimea. Yet, he adds, that he would still try to report on positive developments in the country, whether it was the economic situation or something else.
But that has changed, he says: “The war is the most important thing now.”
As well as working on Republic, Dmitry also consistently posts on YouTube Shorts and Telegram, and is the owner of the publication It’s My City in his home city, Yekaterinburg.
He says that his work has generally been able to continue in the same way as before leaving Russia.
But he cautions that being abroad makes it harder to be in touch with your audience and events on the ground.
“So I try to talk more and often with people in Russia. Not just reading social media. But talking to people about their lives, what they are doing and seeing. Of course, it’s not ideal to cover issues but it helps to be in touch.”
The authorities made no direct threats against Dmitry before he left Russia. But in April last year police started a criminal case against him, accusing him of spreading fake news about the Russian army on Instagram. And authorities have placed him on a list of so-called “foreign agents”.
“If I go there I will be arrested,” Dmitry says.
But he thinks that there is more that governments could do – like offering a central place of information for Russian journalists on where safe refuge can be found and what criteria they need to meet to get it.
Freedom House is a global human rights organisation. It is one of a number or groups helping threatened journalists by facilitating the process of getting them to safety.
“It’s a matter of trust,” says Vytis Jurkonis, a Project Director at Freedom House’s office in Vilnius.
“We are a human rights organisation, so local human rights defenders and media know us and are flagging cases.
“Potential hosting governments trust us because of our track record and responsible attitude instead of throwing cases around.”
Vytis explains that securing visas is complex and needs key elements to work, including managing expectations, clearly explaining visa procedures and the environment in the hosting country, good relationships with governments and proper vetting before requests are made.
He adds that it should be the role of civil society to do this logistical work, rather than simply calling for countries to take in more threatened journalists.
MFC member states have also provided safe refuge to journalists coming from other countries, such as Belarus and Afghanistan.
Alongside 12 Ukrainian journalists, Kosovo has taken in six Afghan journalists.
“We knew that some of them would need a safe, temporary place to stay,” Flutura Kusari, an initiator of the programme and an ECPMF legal advisor, says.
“Kosovo has opened their doors and hearts for Ukrainian and Afghan journalists. They have free rent apartments, integration courses, monthly salaries and premises to work as journalists.
“They are welcome to stay in Kosovo until they can go back to their countries safely.”
Kosovo recently gave Rafiullah Nikzad a two-year temporary residence visa. He had fled his country Afghanistan when the Taliban retook power there in 2021, to Pakistan.
As an independent journalist he was under threat.
“Impossible to work”
“Right now in Afghanistan there is no media freedom and no journalist allowed to raise their voice. The Taliban will either kill them or put them in prison,” Rafiullah says.
“Even journalists’ relatives receive punishments. So it’s impossible to work.
“There must be an option to get people out of Afghanistan because of these threats.”
Once he’d been helped to make contact with the correct representatives, Kosovo made it easy for him to travel there and get a visa.
“Actually right now the situation is good as I’m in a safe place and everything is going well. I’m so thankful, because they let me call this country home,” Rafiullah says.
Rafiullah has been getting some work in Kosovo with foreign media. He is not able to work for in-country media without knowing Albanian, though he is taking lessons in this.
However, Rafiullah remains concerned about journalists who have not received the support he has.
“We have our contacts in Afghanistan and our colleagues say they are suffering. Some are in Taliban jails. Many are suffering in Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, and their situation gets worse day-by-day.
“The only thing that can help is humanitarian visas.”
One common aspect of the emergency visa schemes implemented by MFC member states is the collaboration between government and civil society to identify journalists at risk and provide timely support.
“Crucial element of democracy”
In the case of the Czech Republic, this collaboration has meant that the process of providing an emergency visa has been turned around in as little as 72 hours.
Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jan Lipavský, says, “Independent media are a crucial element of each democracy.”
As well as providing hundreds of emergency visas in the past year, the Czech Republic also launched the “Civil Society Programme”, which provides long-term residence permits to endangered journalists and civil society representatives from Russia and Belarus.
The Programme was designed and is carried out in close cooperation between the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Czech NGOs. It has now supported the relocation of dozens of individuals.
“Thanks to this active engagement, [the Czech capital] Prague has become an important hub for human rights defenders and journalists in need,” says Minister Lipavský.
Responses like these are of vital importance, allowing independent reporting to continue in the face of severe persecution.
Yegor, in Lithuania, says, “It would be great if other European countries had such programmes for Russian journalists”, adding that many journalists don’t know what help is available to them.
And he says that while he and his colleagues’ minds are still focused on Russia and Ukraine, “we can work here.”