Russian producer fined for TV antiwar protest, her fate uncertain

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In normal times, I am not in favor of a rogue staffer storming onto a television set and waving a protest sign to promote a personal political agenda.

These are not normal times. And Russia is not a normal country.

What Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer at Channel One, did to denounce the brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was inspiring and courageous–and she is already paying the price.

She was detained and taken to a police station–but her lawyer could not find her overnight. She appeared at a court hearing yesterday and was fined $280, though no one thinks that’s the end of it.

Perhaps the protest, which lasted about five seconds, was a reckless act that has quickly disappeared into the maw of Russian public opinion molded by the sheer propaganda that every outlet there must spew. But I don’t think so. Channel One is a prominent network, and word of such a brazen act in a totalitarian society must have spread like wildfire across Russia’s 11 time zones.

A woman looks at a computer screen watching a dissenting Russian Channel One employee entering Ostankino on-air TV studio during Russia’s most-watched evening news broadcast, holding up a poster which reads "No War" and condemning Moscow’s military action in Ukraine in Moscow on March 15, 2022.
(Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

For the rest of the world, it was a welcome signal that not all Russians support the insanity of Vladimir Putin’s brutal and unprovoked attack on a sovereign country. Some are undoubtedly journalists who aren’t in a position to risk their livelihoods or jeopardize their families. Others simply don’t have the platform to speak out.

On the live broadcast Monday, an anchor was reading off the prompter when Ovsyannikova appeared behind her holding a large sign. It was mostly in Russian, but it also said “NO WAR” and “RUSSIANS AGAINST WAR.”

Ovsyannikova was shouting, “Stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda, they’re lying to you.”

Max Seddon, Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times, reports that Ovsyannikova made an earlier video that sheds important light on her motivation.

“What’s happening in Ukraine is a crime, and Russia is the aggressor,” she says. “The responsibility for this aggression lies with one man: Vladimir Putin. My father is Ukrainian, my mother is Russian, and they were never enemies.”

Now we understand that this is personal, underscored by her necklace, which bears the colors of Ukraine’s flag.

Then comes the mea culpa: “Unfortunately, for the last few years I’ve been working for Channel One. I’ve been doing Kremlin propaganda and I’m very ashamed of it–that I let people lie from TV screens and allowed the Russian people to be zombified.”

You have to stop and wonder: how many other cogs in the Russian media machine actually feel this way, and would say so if they could?

The video also notes, “We didn’t say anything” when Putin seized Crimea in 2014, and “we didn’t protest” when the Kremlin poisoned opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who is now in prison. “We just silently watched this inhuman regime. Now the whole world has turned away from us, and ten generations of our descendants won’t wash off this fratricidal war.”

Remember, there have been sizable antiwar protests in Russia, which Ovsyannikova urged her fellow citizens to join.

Just yesterday, Russian prosecutors asked to add more than 13 years to the sentence for Navalny, who is serving 2.5 years on trumped-up charges.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Ovsyannikova in a video message. Russian state-run TASS says she could face charges for “discrediting” the armed forces, and a Kremlin spokesman dismissed her actions as “hooliganism.”  

As streams of Ukrainian refugees pour into neighboring Poland, here some are housed in a gymnasium.
(Photo by Danilo Dittrich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, the new draconian law passed by the rubber-stamp parliament authorizes prison terms of up to 15 years for journalists who report anything other than official propaganda, such as calling the invasion a war as opposed to a peacekeeping mission, or acknowledging the targeting of civilians, a maternity hospital and a mosque. That’s why such organizations as CNN and the New York Times have halted their reporting from Russia.

But even without new legislation, I have no doubt that Putin’s regime would find ways of making Marina an example. 

She is, in fact, a shining example that even in a country like Russia, where free speech is a distant memory, there are journalists who act on conscience. 

The role of journalists in Ukraine has been very much in the news since award-winning filmmaker Brent Renaud was fatally shot after emerging from a Russian checkpoint, and a colleague, Juan Arrendondo, was wounded. They were reporting on the plight of Ukrainian refugees, now estimated at 3 million.

We also learned yesterday that veteran Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski was killed when his car took incoming fire. 

Zakrzewski was a beloved figure, and tributes poured in not just from Fox colleagues but from journalists at other news organizations, as well. “I had the great privilege of working with Pierre and the even greater privilege of calling him a friend,” said CNN’s Clarissa Ward. “An extraordinary spirit and tremendous talent and one of the kindest, most gracious colleagues on the road. Absolutely heartbreaking.”

Ukrainian soldier Yaroslav prays over the coffin of his father, a member of the Ukrainian military who was killed in recent fighting on the outskirts of Kyiv during his funeral service on March 15, 2022.
(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Jen Psaki said at her briefing, “He was a war zone photographer who covered nearly every international story for Fox News, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria during his long tenure working there.”

“So our thoughts, prayers are with his family, with the entire community as well.”

Zakrzewski had been traveling with Fox Foreign Correspondent Benjamin Hall, who was injured in Monday’s attack on the car outside Kyiv and remains hospitalized. No further details are available, but these tragic episodes further highlight the risk to western journalists.

Marina Ovsyannikova was not in Ukraine covering a war in which she could be killed by bullets or missiles. But in a very real sense, she put herself on the front lines. 

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