How independent and international news orgs are circumventing censorship in Russia

Parker Higgins

Advocacy Director

Russia has cracked down extensively on independent reporting within its borders since it invaded Ukraine last month, leading many outlets to cease publishing or pull editorial staff from the country entirely. Still, international and independent news outlets that would face official censorship within Russia are finding ways to distribute uncensored news to avid readers.

If you’re a journalist or represent a news org looking to circumvent censorship in Russia, please reach out to Freedom of the Press Foundation — we may be able to help.

In some cases, the solutions are high-tech. BBC and The New York Times, for example, both offer Tor onion services to make an encrypted connection to their site available to anybody with Tor browser access. Providing an onion address offers benefits above simply encouraging Tor usage for news sites, which we’ve explained in the context of tracking onion roll-outs and which security researcher Alec Muffett has recently described in more detail.

Importantly, these outlets didn’t start offering onion addresses with the invasion — rather, they’ve long provided Tor access as one channel to read their reporting, meaning the onion URLs have already been widely distributed and would be harder to substitute with spoofs.

For services that haven’t always been available over Tor, offering a new onion service is still a welcome development. Twitter somewhat quietly rolled out a long-anticipated onion service this month.

Independent news outlets on the ground in Russia may not have the infrastructure to launch an onion service, but Meduza — which long anticipated the ban that was issued against it this month — was able to educate readers about using VPNs or other circumvention techniques to continue accessing the site, and offers a mobile app that has not been as straightforward to restrict. It has continued to produce valuable reporting since the new restrictions and is looking to non-Russian audiences to help fund its continued existence.

Some outlets have embraced the platform Telegram, which is popular in both Russia and Ukraine, to distribute news through designated channels. Last week, The New York Times announced that it would begin offering updates through the app.

In addition to the channels which provide a sort of newsfeed, Telegram is advertised as a secure messenger, though security researchers have long cautioned about some of its security design decisions. Earlier this month EFF provided a guide to harm reduction for users of the app. (For encrypted communication, we recommend Signal and maintain a guide to maximizing its security.)

Finally, some of the censorship-circumvention techniques being practiced in Russia are decidedly much more old-school. This month the BBC revived its regional short-wave radio broadcasts — technology usually more associated with World War II than the Internet age — and is transmitting World Service news into Russia and Ukraine for hours each day.

Donate to support press freedom

Your support is more important than ever.