Inside Russia’s information war: State TV journalists ‘disgusted’ a month after start of Ukraine war

One journalist said they were 'ordered' to work on the war. Credit: PA

A month ago just before dawn, Vladimir Putin addressed Russia and the world and ordered a "special military operation" to "demilitarise and denazify Ukraine." Russian forces, Putin said, would enter Ukraine to "protect people who…have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime".

Shortly after President Putin’s speech, the first attacks on Ukraine took place but the soldiers firing on Kyiv and Kharkiv were not the only ones starting a new mission.

The ground war was planned in conjunction with an information war and state television employees were drafted in.

"That day our management got directions from the big bosses of the channel," a journalist for the Russia 1 television channel told ITV News, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"They took the entertainment programmes off air and ordered us to work on the war. We were told to work only on the war and not on other news."

Destroyed residential buildings after shelling by the Russian military, in Boguniya district / Zhytomyr. Credit: PA

Employees were told the move was temporary.

"We expected the war to go on for one week," the Russia 1 journalist said.

"Our manager told us it would be over by March 8 and then we could return to our normal work on musical and dance programmes."

Both Russia’s media and military leaders appeared to expect a quick victory in Ukraine. 

A week after March 8 came and went, Viktor Zolotov, a member of Russia’s national security council admitted that in Ukraine “not everything is going as fast as we would like.”

"The atmosphere is nervous," a Channel One employee also speaking on condition of anonymity told ITV News. Visitors to Channel One previously had their car checked, the journalist said, "but since the start of Ukraine, they now also look underneath the car with mirrors".

"We are at the epicentre of an information war," said a journalist for Russia 24.

"We constantly have to consume so much scary information. We try to keep calm and professional but we are afraid of everything that’s going on."

The burden of working for Russian state media has become too much for some employees.

Recently, in a high profile protest, Marina Osvyannikova, a journalist for Channel One, burst onto set interrupting a live broadcast and carrying a placard which read “they are lying to you here."

In a video recorded prior to her protest, Osvyannikova said she was “ashamed” working for “Kremlin propaganda.”

Since Osvyannikova’s protest live on air at Channel One, security has been stepped up according to the journalist who works there.

"They check your pass more carefully and you now always need it to get into the newsroom. There is also a delay of one minute on all the broadcasts so what happened before doesn’t happen again."

Osvyannikova is not the only journalist to have quit her job; multiple state media journalists reportedly have resigned since the beginning of the war. According to the three journalists who spoke to ITV News, deciding whether or not to leave is almost a daily topic of conversation in newsrooms. 

Freedom of speech restrictions in Russia

As the war has progressed, access to information in Russia has tightened. At first social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were deliberately slowed.

Then, as Russia failed to capture any key Ukrainian cities, as videos emerged of Russian casualties in Ukraine and as mothers demanded answers about their sons sent to fight, restrictions were rapidly imposed. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms were later blocked.

Many independent journalists fled Russia when their outlets were shut down shortly after the war with Ukraine started. New regulations threatening anyone who publishes "fake news" about the activities of Russia’s military with up to 15 years in prison made continuing work difficult.

Destroyed shopping centre after it was hit in a military strike in the Podilskyi residential district of Kyiv. Credit: PA Images

"Initially we had some directives from the higher ups – we don’t use the word ‘war’ under any circumstances," the journalist from Russia 1 told ITV News. "Every day we get ‘we do this or that now.’ Our supervisor has briefings everyday regarding the agenda."

The three journalists who spoke to ITV News work across online and television news for three of Russia’s biggest channels - Russia 1, Channel One and Russia 24. All of them said they had been directed by management to work only with official sources of information. 

"If any event causes some doubts among the leadership regarding the facts, we check the data, report on the results and then get a directive: present now, wait for more detailed information, or don’t present at all if the information is ‘unclear’, and there has been no official confirmation," the Russia 24 employee said.

Official sources of information include Russian state news wires, the Kremlin, Ministry of Defence and the Russian Foreign Ministry.

"Obviously, we don’t use Ukrainian media, even official sources,” the Russia 1 journalist told ITV News. “It’s illegal to be against the war."

Mariupol attack

When pregnant women were pictured being evacuated from a maternity hospital in Mariupol in southern Ukraine, the west watched in horror and condemned Russia for hitting the hospital with an airstrike. One pregnant woman was pictured on a stretcher, her pelvis crushed and her hip apparently detached.

The three state media journalists who spoke to ITV News said they had all reported on the maternity hospital attack in Mariupol.

Emergency staff carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital that was bombed in Mariupol. The woman and her baby later died. Credit: AP

"According to official information, there was no-one in this maternity hospital," said the Russia 1 employee. "The Ministry of Defence carried out a strike because the Azov battalion [a far-right group] was based there."

"This was a very difficult emotional moment," the journalist from Russia 24 said. "TV channels, including us, gave extensive coverage to this topic. We relayed the official position, without evaluating what happened.

"Given the colossal long-standing skill of the West at staging such terrible political propaganda, I fully believe the official position of our authorities."

Publishing false information

The journalists who spoke to ITV News sometimes appeared conflicted in their own views. Some of them said they support the Russian government’s position yet recognise that they operate under restrictions whilst at the same time saying they are not subject to censorship. All of them appeared anxious about their actions. 

"Contrary to the opinion of common people, we don’t have censorship. In the common understanding of this word - this means a diktat of information sources," the Russia 24 journalist told ITV News, adding, "we don’t publish unchecked information until we see official confirmation."

Russian tanks in Ukraine

"The official position is the Russian government position and you cannot contradict it or show the government in a bad light. This does not always correspond to the truth," the Russia 1 journalist said.

With sanctions battering the Russian economy and prices rising, some state media employees said they preferred to keep fighting an information war they do not necessarily believe in rather than lose their livelihoods.

"We still have to be able to buy food," the Channel One journalist said. "It might be possible to find another job," said the Russia 1 journalist, "but if a person has a certain salary, it now is hard to find the same amount. People are afraid of losing jobs at a time of crisis."

'I feel disgusted' working for state media

Russia does not have a thriving media scene and many independent outlets have been shut down and their journalists have fled the country. 

"It’s emotionally hard working here. My colleagues think the same, but we don’t want to leave," said the Russia 1 employee. "I feel disgusted. I think every day I want to quit. But if you quit, how can you stay here? It means you must leave the country and lots of people don’t have that option."

As the war has progressed, the rhetoric on Russian state television has ramped up; claiming the Ukrainian government is run by Nazis, denying, or ignoring, civilian casualties after airstrikes across Ukraine and suggesting Ukraine is planning chemical weapons attacks with the support of the United States. 

Russia 1 posts "official stuff on social media and huge numbers of people in the comments write that they support this position," the journalist for the channel told ITV News.

Russia strikes Kyiv apartment block Credit: AP

"Our bosses don’t believe what we say, nobody believes it. Everyone works on it, no matter how disgusting it might be. But there are real people, not bots, who write in the comments section and who speak in support of the war. This is the scariest part; there are big numbers of people who support it."

While Russia’s attack on Ukraine may not be going as well as officials had hoped a month after it was launched, it appears it may be on the way towards winning the information war at home. State television has always been the dominant source of information for Russians and with social media sites blocked, it is now the only way many people get their news. 

Since the war began, Russian grandmothers have described themselves as ‘Putin’s troops’ and there have been multiple reports of Ukrainians who say their Russian relatives do not believe them when they say they have been attacked.

"Some people only watch federal channels and do not hear an alternative opinion. The information war in Russia is aimed only at the population and not the outside world," the journalist from Russia 1 said. "Psychologically it is easier for people to agree with what is happening than to fight the dissonance in their head."

Like some of those sent to fight on the ground in Ukraine, some state television employees say they are unwilling participants in Russia’s war. Others have gone into battle more readily. All of them, however, have been deployed by President Putin as soldiers in a war for control of land and power beyond Russia’s borders and for hearts and minds at home.