Networks Scramble To Cover Russia Rebellion Amid Press Intimidation And Information Confusion

Networks have scrambled to cover the rebellion in Russia by initially drawing heavily on social media images, foreign policy analysts and correspondents in other countries, while media presence in Moscow has been limited.

On CNN, Wolf Blitzer, enlisted in Saturday morning duty, told viewers that Vladimir Putin was facing “perhaps the boldest threat to his hold on power in Russia in all his 20 plus years leading the country, and the threat actually comes from within Russia,” then turning to Nic Robertson in London.

Putin is facing an uprising from mercenary chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin, with reports that he has taken control of the city of Rostov-on-Don and that the insurrection was on its way to Moscow. Viewers on Saturday woke up to images of Putin declaring that he would crush the rebellion and that Prigozhin was guilty of treason. He said that those who prepared the rebellion would suffer “inevitable punishment.”

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Steve Rosenberg, Russia editor for BBC News, is among the handful of news correspondents who has still been in Moscow. On the air on Saturday, he characterized the rebellion as a “watershed moment.”

“It is a very dangerous moment for Vladimir Putin,” he said. “This is a man who has been in power so long, right? Twenty three years. And when you are in power that long you kind of think that you’re invincible and you can survive anything.” He noted that Putin’s justification for the Ukraine invasion last year was to boost Russians’ security, but “look at what has happened since then. Drone attacks on the Kremlin. Drone attacks on other parts of the country. Intensive shelling of Russian regions bordering Ukraine. Saboteur groups coming across from Ukraine into Russia. And now an armed rebellion, making their way to Moscow demanding the removal of the defense minister which Vladimir Putin appointed.”

Nevertheless, he noted that it was a “pretty typical Saturday afternoon” in the city. “People relaxing. A lot of people I spoke to today said, ‘Well, you know, we haven’t seen any tanks yet. So we’re not going to worry about it.”

CNN has featured images of Rostov-on-Don, including footage labeled as coming from Ria Novasti, a Russian state news agency, and in Moscow from Reuters.

News organizations are guarded about their plans for personnel to travel in and out of the country, given the limits on press freedom. Most major news outlets have had limited numbers of correspondents, if any, on the ground in Russia. After the passage of a censorship law following the start of the war in Ukraine last year, a number of news organizations put coverage within the country on hold as they examined its impact. Some outlets, like CNN and the BBC, eventually resumed.

But the concerns over journalist safety escalated again in March, when The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich was arrested. He is the first American journalist to face charges of espionage since the Cold War, while his imprisonment has been met with protest from the Journal, President Joe Biden and the international media. His arrest had a “chilling effect for everyone,” Polina Ivanova, a Russia correspondent for The Financial Times, said in April, per The New York Times.

CNN still has a team on the ground in Russia, including Matthew Chance, senior international correspondent, according to a network spokesperson. He was just in the country but had headed to Ukraine earlier this week, and reported on the unfolding situation on Friday night from Kyiv.

The coverage of the rebellion, though, is a bit of a contrast from 1991, when networks had a number of correspondents on the ground in Moscow in the coup attempt against then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. As that drama unfolded, ABC News, for instance, had star personalities like Ted Koppel and Diane Sawyer there. In the aftermath, Gorbachev and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin even sat for a town meeting, answering questions from American viewers and moderated by Peter Jennings.

Sarah Rainsford, the BBC correspondent who was expelled from Russia before the Ukraine war, said on the air from Warsaw on Saturday, said, “It’s very difficult…. Certainly the independent press, the Russian press within the country has been forced out. Many people left the country and particularly the foreign media. Apart from our correspondent there, Steve Rosenberg, most foreign journalists chose very quickly to leave the country after” Gershkovich’s arrest and imprisonment.

“So it is an extremely difficult place to get independent and verified information out of, which means that as these enormous events unfold inside Russia, we’re left relying an awful lot on what’s come out over social media and what people on the ground are reporting but who are not journalists,” Rainsford said. “So it has made things very difficult, and that of course is a product of Vladimir Putin’s 20 odd years of rule. He has made crushing the media, squashing the free press one of his priorities.”

Many of the initial reports from Russia on Friday relied heavily on messages and footage posted to social media platform Telegram. Twitter was populated with messages and images from the country, but it was difficult to determine accuracy of information, in part because of the platform’s removal of legacy blue check verification marks.

In his postings, Prigozhin has denied that the rebellion is a military coup but a protest, or “march of justice,” against an ill-fated invasion of Ukraine.

A lot of coverage has been analysis from foreign policy experts or from correspondents elsewhere, including Ukraine, where all of the major networks still have a significant presence.

CNN host Michael Smerconish interviewed Nina Khrushcheva, Nikita Khrushchev’s great granddaughter, who was in Moscow. But the webex by Cisco feed went out. “Is it me or was her signal starting to fade after the observation that she made that she was surprised that she was still able to be with us,” Smerconish said, before going to Ben Wedeman in Ukraine.

More to come.

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