Independent's man in Russia fears Covid-19 surveillance will make investigative journalism harder

Oliver Carroll Russia

The Independent’s Moscow correspondent, Oliver Carroll, has said new challenges from an increase in online surveillance in Russia during the Covid-19 pandemic mean “we might not really understand how difficult journalism has become until later”.

This is against a general backdrop of journalism becoming more difficult in Russia, according to the paper’s embedded reporter.

“It’s obviously no surprise to say working in Russia is getting progressively more difficult,” he told Press Gazette.

“For foreign journalists, it manifests itself in the availability of sources and people willing to speak to you because the levers have been steadily applied and essentially it’s very hard for someone in a government agency if they were to speak to a journalist to not be under the threat of treason, and so for most of them it just isn’t worth their while.

“Until recently foreign correspondents have not faced direct harassment. I think that has slightly changed,” Carroll said, adding that they were previously seen as being more protected than local journalists by many in the Russian government but are now increasingly coming “under attack”.

“I’m not going to say encouraged by parts of government, but certainly not discouraged in the same way as they used to be,” he added.

Carroll said like many authoritarian governments Russia has used the pandemic to its advantage and introduce more surveillance measures, for example, which more tightly control both journalists and citizens in general.

In the spring people eeded digital passes to leave their homes during a strict lockdown, while video surveillance and facial recognition technology was used to catch people outside without good reason.

Riding out the pandemic in Russia

The British journalist, who joined The Independent in September 2017 after spells as managing editor of the Moscow Times, editor at Open Democracy Russia and senior editor for Russian Esquire in the early 2000s, has remained in Russia throughout the pandemic with just two trips to South Africa and the UK in early winter.

Because of the relaxed measures in Russia since June he felt he has been in a “very advantageous position” compared to many colleagues elsewhere, adding: “In a paradoxical fashion I’ve managed to surf the Covid wave in one of the best places in the world.”

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He compared it to watching Britain from the outside, which he said has been like seeing a “banana republic”, pointing to the rollout of the test and trace system as a particular misstep.

Russia had a very strict lockdown in place for the first wave of the pandemic until June but has since resisted a return to similar measures because of the impact on the economy despite the fact the death rate is now much higher than during the first wave.

According to the World Health Organisation, Russia has recorded 3.5m confirmed cases and 63,370 Covid-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic – the eighth-biggest cumulative total in the world.

Russia confessed in December its official toll did not include deaths linked to Covid-19 that did not list the virus as the main cause; when these are included it is thought it could be ranked third-highest globally.

‘Immersive’ journalism

Carroll spent several days in hospital in Moscow in April with possible Covid-19 (he is still not sure) and said despite his “absolutely involuntary” journalistic posting it was “very instructive” to talk to doctors while he was there about their view of the early stages of the pandemic, at a time when there was scepticism about the country’s low case rates.

“In these circumstances, you’re always torn between being a decent citizen and a journalist and ultimately the journalist wins out and you’re asking all these impertinent questions but you’re not going to be in a situation like that again and journalists have to be difficult, they have to get to the story,” he said.

Eight months later and Carroll has been vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V, which became the first vaccine registered for emergency use in the world in August despite limited human testing. A mass inoculation campaign was then launched in December, just ahead of the UK.

Despite Russians being described as “wary” about the vaccine’s limited testing, Carroll reasoned it was a choice between the risk of side-effects from the jab (he did ultimately experience a raised temperature for several days) and of being struck down with a bad case of Covid in the midst of a Russian winter. He has now developed antibodies.

“Ultimately it wasn’t a case of risk or no risk, it was choosing which risk you want to take,” he said.

“And for me, I felt privileged to be able to have it to be honest knowing that yes it’s being used as geopolitical football but at the same time I would have been getting a vaccine in September or something [in the UK].”

It also meant Carroll could say “there’s nothing like being an immersive journalist”, following his involuntary hospital stay, with the vaccine experiment – this time, at least, it was his own decision.

He decided to produce a short film about the vaccine showing him getting the jab for The Independent’s new online video channel, Independent TV, which he described as a logical development for the title.

“The one thing The Independent has always been really good at is foreign reporting – on the ground, embedded in a way that often foreign correspondents aren’t, they fly in for a day and fly out,” he said. “I think The Independent’s always been a bit better than that.

“But of course it’s always been textual. Everything has a place but visual storytelling and visual writing I think we can do just as well as anybody else and this is a new platform for the correspondents to do that.”

[Read more: Independent TV launches as title reports revenue up 23% year on year]

In a country like Russia where “you can’t speak to people honestly with a camera in their face” many stories will always be better in a written format, he said.

But he envisions producing a video once or twice a month and hopes they will offer a different type of storytelling to traditional TV news.

“It’s a more personal correspondent’s take again from the fact they’re living in the place – that’s not something you often see in certainly British and American news.

“I think we’ll be able to tap into a rich journalism this way whether short form or long form. It’s something the correspondents are very excited about and hopefully this will be a watershed year for us.”

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