Key Russian liberal media outlets disband and suspend operations amid Kremlin war crackdown

Two of Russia's landmark liberal media outlets were dissolved or suspended operations on Thursday, amid an unprecedented Kremlin crackdown over its war with Ukraine.

Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of Ekho Moskvy radio, told AFP that the station's board of directors has decided to disband the iconic outlet following government moves this week to clamp down on the few independent media left in the country.

Authorities say they are targeting outlets that spread "deliberately false information" about the war in Ukraine.

Choking back tears, Natalia Sindeyeva, CEO of independent TV Dozhd said she and her colleagues have made "the hardest decision of their lives" to temporarily suspend the work of the channel.

"We need strength and some time to exhale and understand how to work next," Sindeyeva said on Dozhd's YouTube channel, after its website was blocked by the government on Wednesday.

Founded in 2008, the television channel is considered to be one the few remaining bastions of free speech in Russia.

It had survived several crackdowns and cataclysms, but kept working, providing an unparallelled coverage of anti-Kremlin protests, the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and since last week, the war in Ukraine.

But Sindeyeva said that a bill taken up by the Russian parliament this week that introduces fines and jail time for publishing "fakes" about Russia's war in Ukraine would completely incapacitate Dozhd.

"Our work will be practically impossible. Or we will be left reporting on beautiful art shows and fireworks," a shaken Sindeyeva said.

"We really hope that we will get back on the air."

A few moments later, Sindeyeva was surrounded by a dozen Dozhd employees, some wearing black hoodies with the channel's logo.

Crying or holding back tears, they each said goodbye to their viewers and thanked them for support.

'Half war-like environment'

Dozhd chief editor Tikhon Dzyadko and his wife Ekaterina Kotrikadze, an anchor at the channel, said Wednesday that they had temporarily left Russia, citing government pressure and concerns for their safety.

The atmosphere was slightly more cheerful at Ekho's bureau, where Venediktov, who has been at the helm of the radio station for over 20 years, vowed to continue working.

Speaking to AFP, Venediktov said he would challenge the board's decision and the station would continue operating "until they shut us up with force," Venediktov said.

"We are living in a half-warlike environment now, and the government is introducing, step by step, restrictive laws for the media and in general, not just for journalists."

He compared the actions of the Russian government to the late years of the Soviet Union, before Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika liberalisation campaign started.

"We are returning to that," Venediktov said. "We will continue living and working with all that."

Ekho Moskvy made its name when it became a rare uncensored source of information for Russians during the failed 1991 coup, which precipitated the Soviet collapse.

Anti-anxiety medication

At Ekho's office, journalists, many of them young and wearing jeans and hoodies, appeared determined. Laughter and chatter was heard in the halls as reporters hugged and expressed support for one another. A poster on a wall read "No to War."

"We are in a fighting mood," said Nikita Vasilenko 27, a producer at Ekho. "We will continue working as a private journalist collective".

News reporter Oleg Ovcharenko, 26, admitted that some of his colleagues had to take anti-anxiety medication when the news came of Ekho being banned.

"It was a shock for everybody, this piece of news was hard on many people," he told AFP.

But Ovcharenko is not ready to give up.

"It is too early to panic. We are continuing our job," he said.

Hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops there under the pretext of "demilitarising and denazifying" Russia's Western-leaning neighbour.

The international community has responded with widespread condemnation and hit Russia with harsh economic sanctions in order to cripple its economy.

But as Russian troops continued shelling Ukrainian cities, causing numerous civilian deaths, Putin was unbowed Thursday, vowing to continue his "uncompromising fight against militants of nationalist armed groups".

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said the media crackdown was a dark sign of more devastation and pain to befall Ukraine.

"The most horrible thing is not the onslaught of censorship gone insane, but that fact that, with a high degree of probability, these (media) closures are a preparation for the storming of Ukrainian cities and for hiding the scale of the losses and destruction," Rogov wrote on Facebook.