Since the start of the Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government have carried out an intense crackdown on the press — banning more than 300 Russian journalists and branding them “foreign agents,” and threatening anyone who calls the Ukraine conflict an invasion or act of war with up to 15 years in prison.
A new FRONTLINE documentary, Putin vs. the Press, follows one journalist as he fights to keep his newspaper alive and his reporters safe amid the government’s crackdown: Nobel prize-winner Dmitry Muratov, branded a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin on Sept. 1.
Putin vs. the Press is directed by Patrick Forbes. The documentary explores Muratov’s leadership of Novaya Gazeta, an independent paper known for its investigative reporting: exposing the horrors of the Chechen war, the corruption of the ruling elite, and the increasing authoritarianism of modern Russia.
Between 2000 and 2009, six Novaya journalists and contributors were murdered — a reality that haunts Muratov: “We lost so many people from the paper … my main task is to keep my employees safe,” he says in the documentary.
The film chronicles how Muratov sustained Novaya for years by walking a tightrope — sometimes compromising with the Kremlin, accepting funding from oligarchs, and always keeping a channel open to Putin — and how he and Novaya then became a target of the authorities’ crackdown amid the war on Ukraine.
“If you write the word ‘war’, you’ll be shut down,” Muratov says in the documentary. “If you tell us how the fighting is going on in Ukraine, you have no right to do so. Because you must only cite the point of view of the official military authorities. This is absolutely ferocious censorship. … If we give up on democracy, we say yes to war.”
From Muratov’s decision to auction his Nobel medal to help Ukrainian refugees, to the violent backlash that followed, to the court’s revoking of Novoya’s license to operate and Muratov’s attempts to find new ways to publish, Putin vs. the Press is a powerful account of a critical time for Muratov, his paper and his country.
“We’ve stayed at home, stayed here with our readers who can’t leave,” says Muratov, who is now one of a dwindling number of independent journalists still in Russia.
As the war on Ukraine and Putin’s clampdown on the Russian news media continue, Putin vs. the Press is an essential look at Muratov’s fight, and what’s at stake.