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Lessons from Russia on the Importance of Free Media

Nobel Peace Prize–winning journalist Dimitry Muratov offers takeaways about propaganda from the war in Ukraine.

Muratov speaks in the Harold B. Lee Library through a translator.
Photo by Niles Herrod

On February 24, 2022, Russian troops invaded Ukraine, initiating the largest land conflict in Europe since World War II.

One year to the day later, as the conflict continues to rage, Russian journalist and winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Dmitry Muratov visited BYU campus to share his insights as a journalist in the midst of the conflict.

Titled “The Role of a Free Media in Building a Civil Society: The Case of Russia,” Muratov’s lecture was sponsored by the Department of German & Russian, the European studies major, the Kennedy Center, and the School of Communications. In the lecture, he discussed the devastating effects of the war and offered insights for identifying and overcoming state propaganda.

As a journalist, Muratov has made a career covering human rights violations and misuses of power. As the editor in chief of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, he won the Nobel Prize “for [his] efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.”

However, Muratov’s journalism has recently been met with opposition in his home country. Despite widespread opposition to the conflict (in both Russia and abroad), Muratov explained that he has little freedom to publicize anti-war opinions due to Russia’s suppression of non-state-affiliated media. Last year, Novaya Gazeta had its media license revoked by Russian courts in what Muratov called a “political hit job.”

The Russian crackdown on independent media means that state media is able to openly spread propaganda and justify offensive military action. “Propaganda is always leading to the war,” Muratov said. “The state-owned media is giving people the message that its time not just to attack Ukraine, but it’s time to attack the West.”

Though Russia is a particularly urgent and extreme case of propaganda, the country isn’t an exception—it’s the rule. “Every nation is subject, potentially, to propaganda. It’s like radiation,” he said. But he explained that identifying and understanding propaganda is the first step to eradicating it. He shared several principles of wartime propaganda we can learn from Russia’s spin on its invasion of Ukraine:

  • First, the country will claim lands as its own while defending itself against criticism by citing the need to establish firm borders. 
  • Second, the country will claim it is not the one who attacked. 
  • Third, leaders will make claims that their enemy’s leader is a fascist. 
  • Last, the country will claim it is freeing the subject country from fascism, nationalism, and terrorism. 

Muratov followed these points with a challenge to the students in attendance. “Your generation has the charge to understand propaganda and find the antidote to it,” he said. “My generation did not succeed in that.”

He ended his speech with an additional call to action—one with potentially grave consequences for all of society. “We need to bring back free election and free media,” he said. “Otherwise, we will pay with death.”