Alexei Korostelev, a presenter on Russian independent TV channel Dozhd was dismissed last week after he said on-air that “we hope that we were able to help many soldiers, for example with equipment and basic amenities.” That phrase — which some took as an admission Dozhd was sending supplies to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine — led to a legal probe into the media outlet in its adopted home of Latvia, as well as a bitter discussion about the high stakes for independent journalists who have fled Russia.
- Korostelev was speaking on a news broadcast about the number of conscripted men from a small town in the Urals. According to their wives and families, the men were not properly trained before they were deployed at the front, they had no weapons other than machine guns and, after coming under fire, they received neither help nor reinforcements. In a bridge between items, Korostelev asked viewers to send information about problems in the Russian army to a special mailbox.
- A few hours after the broadcast, Dozhd’s editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko wrote that the channel was not helping the Russian army with equipment. The following day, Korostelev was fired. The journalist himself responded by saying he was against the war and had never asked viewers to send money to help the army. He added that he wanted to help conscripts by telling their stories. “I have no objection to my dismissal if it helps the channel,” he wrote. Over the weekend, two of his colleagues announced that they were resigning in protest at Dozhd’s treatment of the presenter.
- This isn’t Dozhd’s first scandal since it decamped to Latvia after the outbreak of war. In August, Dozhd presenter Yekaterina Kotrikadze interviewed Riga’s mayor Martins Stakis. Kotrikadze asked about the demolition of Soviet-era monuments in the Latvian capital and suggested they were valued by the city’s residents. This was not well received. Renowned director Alvis Hermanis called for a ban on Dozhd journalists working in the country.
- Korostelev’s fateful phrase is causing the channel further problems. Dozhd is registered in Latvia and the bulk of its editorial staff are based in Riga (two other bureaus work in Tbilisi and Amsterdam). After Korostelev’s show, Latvia’s regulator fined Dozhd 10,000 euros for showing a map that included Moscow-annexed Crimea as part of Russia and for referring to the Russian army as “ours.” This is the second fine in six months; a third could prompt the withdrawal of the channel’s broadcasting license. Details of the first violation are unknown.
- Korostelev’s words, and their consequences, also whipped up a storm on social media. Some argued that dismissal was too high a penalty for an error live on air from a journalist who had worked at the channel for eight years. Korostelev’s supporters included many independent Russian journalists. Other commentators believe that Dozhd has no place in Latvia because it “supports” the Russian army — the country’s Defense Minister Artis Pabriks is among those who hold this position.
- Dozhd had to move to Latvia this year after Russia suspended the channel following the passage of wartime censorship laws. Latvia has since become a refuge for many independent media outlets covering Russia: apart from Dozhd, they include the BBC Russian Service, Meduza, Kholod, Deutsche Welle and Radio Liberty.
Why the world should care
Many Russian journalists who were forced to leave the country because of censorship cannot return. In their homeland, they face criminal charges. Sacking a journalist for a mistake, albeit a serious one, can put their safety at risk in this new media environment.