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Independent Russian journalism persists from Latvia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sharply intensified his crackdown on the media since launching the full-out war in Ukraine. Two American journalists are in detention there, facing what supporters say are trumped-up charges. Journalists who criticize the war risked long prison sentences, yet independent Russian journalism is far from dead. It simply moved offshore, as NPR's Philip Reeves discovered during a trip to Latvia in the Baltics.

KIRILL MARTYNOV: I had two jobs in Moscow. I was a university teacher, and I was a journalist. And both of my job were destroyed.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Until recently, Kirill Martynov was editor-in-chief of Russia's oldest independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. Then, in February last year, Putin launched all-out war on Ukraine. Martynov's life was turned upside down.

MARTYNOV: I was fired from universities because I discussed this war with my students. And Novaya Gazeta was shut down by Russian authorities officially more than one year ago.

REEVES: Martynov says this meant he faced a simple choice.

MARTYNOV: I need to be silent or I will go to prison, or the other option, I will do the same stuff but outside Russia.

REEVES: He chose the second option and came here. This is Riga. It's the capital of Latvia, a tiny Baltic nation that was once part of the Soviet Union but is now in NATO. Its government strongly supports Ukraine. Here, Martynov runs Novaya Gazeta Europe, an offshoot of his old organization. Here, he can publish those stories about Russia that would have landed him in jail back home. He's not alone.

SABINA SILE: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: We've come to a place specially created as a haven for journalists seeking refuge in this city.

SILE: This is the kitchen. And here, we have a list of birthdays. We provide coffee and tea and vitamins.

REEVES: Sabina Sile is Latvian. She's co-founder of Riga's Media Hub, a nonprofit that runs this place.

SILE: This is also the place where we hold community events if we're all gathering with our families and children.

REEVES: So far, the Hub's helped more than 500 media workers and their families. Here, they can access free legal advice, learn Latvian...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Breathe in and breathe out.

REEVES: ...And relieve the stress with a workout. The working space is brightly decorated. There are comfy chairs and flowers and paintings.

SILE: The reason for making it comfortable and homey is so that people could feel not just physically safe but also emotionally.

REEVES: This is important, especially for new arrivals.

SILE: A lot of them had to leave very quickly in a matter of hours to pack their bags and leave. But also, it's a difficult decision to leave your maybe parents behind, not knowing when the next time will be when you see them.

REEVES: Riga's a captivating city. It has parks and ancient churches, cocktail bars and fancy coffee shops. Forests and beaches are just a short drive away. Yet arriving Russians sometimes struggle to adapt. Some quit media organizations back home in protest over censorship, only to find a job shortage here. Paying for accommodation and organizing residency papers is increasingly challenging, says Sile. Last winter was tough.

SILE: People were really, really struggling. There were suicide attempts. And so we were happy that none of it was successful and that we were able to support each other and get through it together.

REEVES: Denis Kamalyagin is sitting at a nearby desk.

DENIS KAMALYAGIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: He's chief editor of Pskovskaya Guberniya, a small independent newspaper in Pskov in western Russia. The Kremlin insists journalists call its war in Ukraine a special military operation.

KAMALYAGIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "I got out of there so as that I could call a war a war," says Kamalyagin. Nine days after the war started, police commandos seized all the equipment from his newspaper headquarters, forcing it to close. A few days later, they raided his home.

KAMALYAGIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Kamalyagin says he hurriedly fled Russia, carrying only a backpack. His paper's been in trouble before. In 2015, it angered the authorities by revealing Russian paratroopers had been killed in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, even though the Kremlin denied any Russian military was there. Kamalyagin thinks this time his paper was targeted to stop it reporting Russian fatalities since the all-out invasion of Ukraine. This hasn't worked. His news portal is covering the story from here, using a secret network of anonymous journalists at home. He says it's keeping a running total of dead soldiers from his area. For Russian journalists here in Latvia, life is much safer. They play cat and mouse with Russian authorities who block their outlets, forcing them to switch platforms. They also still face threats from Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VYACHESLAV VOLODIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Russia's lower house of Parliament, the Duma, talks of stripping disloyal Russians of property and passports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VOLODIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "These people who hope the Nazi regime in Ukraine will be victorious and not welcome here," says Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin at a recent hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VOLODIN: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "Those who return to Russia should be sent to the Gulag," he says. Back across the border in Latvia, the new arrivals have had a mixed reception. The country's sizable population of ethnic Russians includes Putin supporters. Other Latvians remember the repressive Soviet years and tend to view Russians with suspicion. Yet Kirill Martynov of Novaya Gazeta Europe says, overall, there's been a warm welcome from Latvian authorities.

MARTYNOV: Because they were under Soviet occupation, and they had thousands of people who lived in exile for decades. And so they understand quite clear what does it mean when, you know, when you have heavy dictatorship in your country and you're forced to move abroad.

REEVES: Not every journalist who's here to avoid prison or worse back home is Russian.

ANASTASIYA ZAKHAREVICH: The level of absurdity there is so high that it's often difficult for people to believe.

REEVES: Anastasiya Zakharevich is from Belarus, Moscow's closest European ally. She was detained while covering opposition protests in 2020 and spent days in custody. She's now a refugee in Latvia. A few months ago, her father back home died suddenly.

ZAKHAREVICH: I had to look at the funerals of my dad on the screen of my smartphone. And this is the worst experience in the life.

REEVES: Riga's media exiles hope one day soon all this will end.

MARTYNOV: I believe that we will face years or maybe decades of this divided Europe and rise of hate and distrust.

REEVES: Yet it's hard to be optimistic, says Kirill Martynov. Martynov is not sure he will ever be able to go home. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Riga, Latvia.

SHAPIRO: And if you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, just those three digits - 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.