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Russian journalists move to Riga to set up an independent media in exile

RIGA, Latvia – It’s a typical newsroom, but not typical journalists.

This tiny apartment in downtown Riga is headquarters for a team of Russian journalists who call themselves Russia’s free press in exile.

They started their Meduza news outlet (Russian for "jellyfish") in October, when some 20 veterans of the Russian online newspaper, headed by their chief editor Galina Timchenko, relocated to Riga.

Many quit their jobs in March, following Timchenko’s firing by website owner Alexander Mamut, reportedly for publishing an interview with Ukraine's Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh, who holds ardently anti-Russian views.

Russia’s regulator considered the material as a violation of a law against extremism. The journalists got the message that they wouldn't be able to escape censorship if they stayed in Russia.

“The dismissal of the chief editor and the appointment of the pro-Kremlin official is a violation of the law on media, which discusses the inadmissibility of censorship," reads an open letter of the Lenta journalist in protest of Timchenko’s dismissal.

Timchenko described their move to Riga as a "forced measure" that was the result of suffocating working conditions in Russia, she said in an interview with The Moscow Times.

Konstantin Benyumov, chief editor of English-language edition of Meduza, explains that they ended up in an ex-Soviet republic because it’s cheaper to start a business and register new media in Latvia.

Moreover, there is a big Russian community in Latvia with a population of only two million people.

Some of the Russians in Latvia are pro-Kremlin, however.

"I’m afraid they like Russian regime a bit more than we do,” he explains. “A taxi driver once told me that Russians should have deployed troops to Helsinki also."

The team focuses on mostly Russian topics, but also keeps an eye on Ukrainian events. They still have special correspondents in Russia. Meduza translates its stories in English and aggregates. They also have stories published by The Guardian, Quartz and Buzz Feed.

Even though they launched its English version a couple of months ago, they already have more than 3,300 Twitter followers. Meduza’s home page has more than 123,000 Twitter followers and 50,000 Facebook likes.

The team also attracts its readers with quizzes and special projects aimed to explain Russia for the Russian audience and English speakers. Index cards explain complex topics of Russian politics or economy in a format that mixes Q&A and slideshow.

In an interview with Forbes Russia in September Meduza’s publisher Ilya Krasilshchik said that “if everyone didn’t discuss Meduza in a year – it would mean that we have failed.”

Benyumov is certain that Meduza is succeeding.

Meduza collections donations and has investors behind the project, although they won't identify them. “They have nothing to do neither with media nor with the politics,” Timchenko was quoted as saying.

The site has already reached three million unique visitors a month. Around 80 percent of their audience lives in Russia.

Meduza is also the biggest Baltic media outlet, but rarely covers local news.

“None of us could answer the question how long we’ll stay in Riga. We left so we could keep doing our job, and we made our work secure – so Russian authorities won’t be able to come to our newsroom and take away our computers and a server – we cut off this danger and left.”

However, the team would be ready to return to Russia as soon as the repression ends.

For now, they have each other and freedom of speech.

“If there’s a need for urgent work – say, at night – none is hanging out in the bar. Our life scheme is work and sleep, so we’re ready to work even at 3 a.m.” And that’s what Meduza did while reporting on a murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, killed near the Kremlin on Feb. 27.

They miss home, but are happy to work together in new circumstances.

“We’re kind of a dysfunctional family,” Benyumov adds, smiling. “But all people here are nice.”