The Kremlin has near total control over the media in Russia, so when one woman protested the Ukraine war live on air, she disrupted the narrative – and sent shockwaves around Russia.
[Clip: Vremya’s opening theme tune]
If you’re from Russia, or if you’ve ever lived there, this music might sound familiar.
It’s the opening to Vremya, the biggest current affairs show on one of Russia’s biggest state-owned TV stations: Channel One.
It’s been on air for decades.
Millions of people tune in every single night so it’s a real staple of Russian life. And the presenters are household names.
One of them is a woman called Ekaterina Andreeva.
“She’s said to be the favourite TV host of Vladimir Putin and she’s been hosting this programme for I guess like 30 years or something.”Dmitry Yelovsky, TV Rainn, speaking on BBC R4 Today programme
She’s been a news anchor on the show since 1996.
She claims she’s not a propagandist. Here she is speaking to the BBC’s Russian service a few years ago.
[BBC Russian service, interview with Ekaterina Andreeva in Russian]
She’s saying that what she does is, quote, “just a calm, balanced presentation of information.” But really, Vremya is an engine of state propaganda.
Like most media in Russia, the TV station that airs the programme, Channel One, is controlled by the state.
Its board of directors is stuffed with ministers and officials from the government.
There are very few independent media outlets in Russia. And the main way most people get their news is still through programmes like Vremya on networks like Channel One.
So when a woman rushed onto the set of the show last week, interrupting Ekaterina Andreeva and demonstrating against the war in Ukraine, you can be sure that millions of Russians saw it.
[Clip of Marina Ovsyannikova protesting on Channel One]
When Marina Ovsyannikova burst onto the set shouting anti-war slogans she was holding up a hand-written sign.
It had a Russian flag in one corner and a Ukrainian flag in the other and it said: “No war. Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They lie to you here. Russians against war.”
Seconds after she appeared, the show cut away.
And soon afterwards studio executives handed her over to the police.
What she did was an incredible act of defiance. Because in Russia, protesting against Vladimir Putin’s regime is a dangerous thing to do.
“Riot police clashed with protesters everywhere in angry scenes which were repeated across the country latest reports say there have been up to 1,000 arrests.”ITV news, 2018
In the past few years, anti-government protestors have routinely been arrested en masse and treated with violence by police.
A law passed in 2014 made it illegal to hold a demonstration without the permission of Russian authorities, with violations punishable by a fine or 15 days in prison.
And it’s only become more and more risky to speak out.
Eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, a new law was passed making it illegal to call it an “invasion” or a “war”.
“The Russian government has introduced drastic new measures to clamp down on dissent as opposition to the war is growing among Russians. On Friday morning the parliament passed legislation banning the spread of information critical of Russia’s war or Russia’s military.”DW news
People who break the law could face up to 15 years in prison.
So why did Marina Ovsyannikova take that risk?
[Video of Marina Ovsyannikova speaking on Telegram]
In a video posted on the social networking site Telegram, Marina Ovsyannikova explained why she protested against the war live on TV.
She’d been working as an editor at Channel One for a few years.
But she said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a red line for her. She couldn’t put up with the lies anymore.
She said, quote, “What is happening now in Ukraine is a crime, and Russia is the aggressor. The responsibility for that aggression is on the conscience of Vladimir Putin.”
She wants the fighting to end.
So she used her access to the show to stage a protest of her own and called on other Russians to take to the streets…
“They cannot arrest us all,” she said.
Marina Ovsyannikova has been fined, and she may be prosecuted for what she did.
In interviews she gave after her release from police custody, Marina Ovsyannikova reiterated her position on the war.
She says that she’s scared about what else might happen to her and yesterday, a week on from her protest, there were signs of what might be to come.
The head of Channel One’s news division, appeared on the news programme to accuse her of being a British spy.
[Clip of Head of Channel One’s news division speaking]
He claimed she’d received a phone call from the British embassy shortly before her protest and added, quote, ““Being emotionally impulsive is one thing, but treason is quite another.”
But this isn’t just about a single act of very public defiance.
It’s significant because the woman she interrupted during her protest is such a famous presenter on Russian television – and such a longstanding member of the Kremlin’s propaganda operation.
And it’s important that Marina Ovsyannikova was a part of that system too, as a news editor for Channel One.
Because it shows that no matter how much control Vladimir Putin thinks he has over the narrative about this war, no matter how much power he tries to exert over what people in Russia can and can’t say, his control is not total.
It takes a lot of courage, but resistance is possible.
Today’s story was written by Ella Hill and produced by Imy Harper.
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