MOSCOW — Russia is in the midst of the largest crackdown on the free press and political dissent since the Soviet era

The trends driving it are numerous, and they have been in place for years. But in the last 18 months, the state has increased its pressure on journalism extraordinarily.

Instead of overt brutality, the campaign is being waged quietly with a vague legal tool: a law regulating the activities of so-called foreign agents.

It was first used against a media outlet in 2017, when several U.S.-government funded outlets, such as the Voice of America, were declared foreign agents. But, last year, the state began to deploy it against independent Russian journalists.

“It is not about receiving money from abroad,” said Sonya Groisman, 27, a reporter who was added to the foreign agent list after her outlet, Proekt, was disbanded after having been labeled “undesirable.” 

“It is a law to silence all independent voices,” she said.

The first targets in the assault on independent, critical journalism in Russia were legal entities — i.e., entire newsrooms. But recently, the state has taken to applying the label to individual journalists, too. Groisman was one of them. And the list is public, often serving as the initial notification affected parties get from authorities informing them of their new reality.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized the challenges Russian journalists face on Oct. 8, when Dmitry Muratov — an editor at the independent news outlet Novaya Gazeta — was jointly awarded this year’s peace prize for his “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression” in Russia. 

Muratov dedicated the award to his “deceased colleagues,” a direct reference to the price independent journalists in Russia have paid over the years. Novaya Gazeta, in particular, has taken a heavy hit. Muratov was award the Nobel Prize one day after the 15th anniversary of the murder of its most famous reporter, Anna Politkovskaya

The Kremlin press office said that those who are labeled foreign agents are not legally limited from working as journalists by law and that they have the right to appeal the designation in court.

The Kremlin’s moves against domestic dissent have sparked fears of a return to the communist era’s approach to free speech.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The foreign agent law was signed in 2012. Before its first use against the media in 2017, it was used against nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups — often those that focus on human rights — that had received foreign grant money.

“I don’t think there has ever been a worse time for Russian civic society and media in general,” said Alexey Kovalev, an editor at the independent news site Meduza. “And I think we have not even hit rock bottom yet, because this machine doesn’t really have a reverse gear. It is actually getting worse.”

The way it works is simple: Every Friday, the Justice Ministry updates a public list of “foreign agents” published on its website. About 90 organizations and people are on the list, which has nearly doubled over the past month, now featuring almost every major independent outlet. 

“The authorities have become smart and sophisticated,” said Gulnoza Said, the director for Europe and Central Asia for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They don’t use the targeted killings of journalists as 20 years ago. They use legislation to legitimize the crackdown.”

By labeling journalists or media outlets as foreign agents, the state is thrusting two significant legal burdens upon them: The first is a disclaimer, prescribed by law, that must accompany everything they post online; the second is a quarterly report about all of their financial activities. Any misstep in either could lead to criminal prosecution, fines or both. 

Kovalev said: “It is not the Russian state that drives you out of business. You have to kill your own business yourself. You have to hire a lawyer to deal with the paperwork, an accountant to deal with the financial filings. And now, when you have individual people declared foreign agents, you see how devastating this actually is.”

President Vladimir Putin addressed the law at a forum in Moscow on Wednesday, defending the foreign agent list as a routine act of bureaucracy, akin to the Foreign Agent Registration Act in the U.S. The U.S. law requires think tanks, lobbyists and foreign state-funded media outlets to report financial ties to foreign governments, but it is less aggressive than the Russian law.

“This law was adopted in the United States in the 1930s, and it is still in use today, applied to Russian media outlets, among other things,” Putin said. “Both there and in our country this is done with one purpose: to protect internal political processes from outside influence. Foreign agents are not prohibited from political or any professional activities. They just have to register.”

Moscow has long sought to deflect accusations that it suppresses dissent by suggesting that it is no different from the U.S.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Said of the Committee to Protect Journalists said the organization warned against the U.S.’s using its foreign agent registration law against the Russian state-funded outlets Russia Today and Sputnik in 2017, arguing that the Russian government would engage in a tit-for-tat response. That is what happened to the Voice of America in Russia, he said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also warned that Russia would take it one step further and use its version of the registration act against independent media outlets. That, too, has happened, he said.

Russian journalists hit with the label point out that there is no trial and no burden on the state to provide evidence that an organization or a person who is added to the registry ever received money from abroad. 

For those who find themselves on the list, it feels permanent. 

“The only cases in which someone was able to get off the list are organizations that destroyed themselves, but I cannot destroy myself,” Groisman said. “So there are only two options: The first option is that some officials ask the Ministry of Justice to remove you from the list.

“The second option is my death,” she said. “Maybe that is more realistic.”

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