Regulatory repression as Russia turns the screw on independent journalism

Recently, Ben Smith, the media columnist at the New York Times, traveled to Riga, the capital of Latvia. He was there to profile Meduza, a news site that covers neighboring Russia and still has reporters on the ground in Moscow, but has been based in Riga since its founding in 2014, and, per Smith, has “settled into a kind of exile” there. Meduza is one of a growing number of independent digital outlets to have produced “riveting scoops” on Russia, holding officials to account in a country whose every major broadcaster is “a highly produced, pro-government analogue of Fox News”—but the government is now hitting back, “designating its highest-impact critics as ‘undesirable,’ or as foreign agents, or both.” Journalists and outlets tagged with the latter label, including Meduza, have tried to make light of it (incorporating “foreign-agent crush” Instagram posts in a fundraising campaign; starting a podcast called Hi, You’re a Foreign Agent) but the consequences are very serious. The designation places onerous bureaucratic requirements on its subjects, even requiring reporters to append disclosures to their personal social-media posts. It’s also a reputational black mark that repels advertisers, partners, and sources, and, as Smith notes, carries the unmistakable connotation of “a dark, Stalinist past.”

Russia has long been hostile to independent journalists, and in recent years, instances of high-profile reporters being targeted have proliferated. In 2019, Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter who has worked for Meduza, was jailed on bogus drugs charges. (He was quickly released following an unusually-sharp public outcry.) Last year, Svetlana Prokopyeva, of the US-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was convicted of “justifying terrorism” over comments she made about a suicide bombing, and Ivan Safronov, a former military correspondent who had recently gone to work for Russia’s space agency, was charged with spying and jailed. One year ago last Friday, the Russian state poisoned Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader who has also dabbled—highly effectively—in investigative journalism about President Vladimir Putin and his cronies; in January, Navalny was arrested on his return to Russia after a spell convalescing abroad, sparking historic protests that were in turn met with mass arrests, including of reporters. Since then, numerous journalists have been detained and/or prosecuted for “participating in” protests, including ongoing pro-Navalny demonstrations.

ICYMI: Biden, Trump, and the missing big picture in Afghanistan coverage

As I wrote in January, the Navalny protests exposed a problem of narrative control for Putin, who had not only failed to silence Navalny himself, but had to contend with the wave of bold online news reporting noted by Smith and changing media-consumption habits among the Russian population; Meduza reported, for example, that ten times as many people watched protest coverage on the YouTube channel of TV Rain, an independent broadcaster, as watched the feed of RT, the state propaganda network. Arrests, clearly, were not stemming the tide. And so Putin’s regime has since intensified its regulatory crackdown on such outlets. This campaign has made room for more classic, in-person harassment: since April, officials have raided the homes of at least five senior journalists linked to at least three news sites—iStories, Proekt, and The Insider—confiscating equipment and, in at least the latter two cases, also raiding the home of a journalist’s parents. It has also made prolific use of the foreign-agent designation, applying it to iStories and The Insider, as well as Meduza, TV Rain, a business site called VTimes, and PASMI, which covers corruption (and has denied having any foreign ties). In the space of eight days in July, the authorities listed thirteen individual journalists as foreign agents, including nine tied to Proekt.

“The ‘foreign agent’ label is all about creating stigma, like a rash on your face,” Tikhon Dzyadko, the editor in chief of TV Rain, said after the channel was tagged late last week. “We aren’t anyone’s agents, and work every hour in the interests of Russia alone.” The designation has had unsupportable costs for some outlets; in June, VTimes shuttered, citing the threat of prison time for its staff and the “destruction” of its commercial business model.

Other outlets have been attacked with even blunter regulatory instruments. Two sites founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin critic, shut down after Russia’s communications watchdog accused them of hosting unspecified “extremist” content and blocked access. Last month, regulators blocked dozens of sites linked to Navalny on similar grounds. The most heavy-handed treatment was, perhaps, reserved for Proekt, which became the first Russian news organization ever to be tagged as “undesirable”—a designation that effectively criminalized its operations and banned other sites from quoting or linking to its work, even historically. Proekt vowed to continue publishing, but Roman Badanin, the site’s top editor, who was on vacation in the US when the designation came down, decided not to return to Russia and moved to evacuate his staff. Badanin told Smith that he expects the authorities to block Russians from accessing Proekt’s website “sooner rather than later.” He is now working to launch a new media company. (Its name? Agentstvo.)

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The Putin regime is clearly trying to silence Navalny, in particular, and independent voices, in general, ahead of key parliamentary elections that are slated to take place a month from now. But, of course, its crackdown on independent journalism has much longer-term ramifications. Broadly speaking, violations of press freedom tend to grab the most international attention when they are gruesome or brazen—involving dismemberment, or an aerial kidnapping, or poison. More often, they take subtler forms—nesting, for example, in cronyistic business transactions and between the blurry lines of arcane legal codes. Russia’s crackdown is a reminder that these insidious methods can do immense damage, and demand scrutiny. It’s a reminder, too, that regulatory and physical threats exist on a continuum, and can’t easily be separated. Recently, Safronov, the former military correspondent, wrote an op-ed from jail criticizing Russia’s treatment of supposed spies. The websites of Vedomosti, which published it, and Meduza, which quoted from it, subsequently were taken offline. Safronov was moved to a “punitive isolation cell.”

Broad crackdowns have a habit, too, of expanding yet further. Russia has recently weaponized the charge of foreign collusion to crack down on domestic (or domestic-facing) media. But international outlets are not immune. RFE/RL has been tagged as a foreign agent since 2017; this year, Russian authorities have harshly punished the broadcaster for failing to comply with the terms of its designation, levying hundreds of fines totaling millions of dollars and freezing its local bank accounts. RFE/RL has pledged to fight to maintain a bureau in Moscow, but, as the BBC has reported, it has already moved some staff and equipment out of the country to ensure the “continuity” of its operations. Recently, the BBC itself took a hit, learning that Russia will not be renewing the visa of Sarah Rainsford, its Moscow correspondent, when it expires at the end of the month. (Officials cast the move as a response to British discrimination against Russian reporters; Britain called this nonsense.) Rainsford’s impending expulsion has come as a shock. “There have been really serious problems recently for Russian independent journalists,” she said. “But until now, for the foreign press, we’d somehow been shielded from all of that.”

Below, more on Russia:


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine; the shot, of course, has already been widely available under an emergency-use authorization, but the approval was still big news, with officials hoping that it will convince more employers to impose vaccine mandates, and more vaccine holdouts to change their minds. “We’ve seen countless quotes in media from people who said they weren’t getting vaccinated because it wasn’t fully approved by the FDA,” Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State, tweeted. “Every news org should go back to those people and ask, ‘OK, are you now going to get vaccinated?’” In other COVID news, the New York Post has told staffers that they must wear masks in the newsroom—despite frequently editorializing against mask mandates. CNN has more.
  • Vox Media is buying Punch, a website, owned by Penguin Random House, that covers drinking and cocktail culture. The deal, the Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin reports, comes as Vox is weighing “several options that would allow the company to finance further expansion,” including the possibilities of “going public through a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, a traditional IPO or raising additional funding.”
  • In 2019, Spotify acquired Gimlet in a deal that was the biggest to that point to involve a podcast studio—but Gimlet has since struggled “to find its place within Spotify’s podcast universe,” Insider’s Natalie Jarvey and Steven Perlberg report. Spotify “didn’t know what they wanted the partnership to be,” one former staffer told Jarvey and Perlberg. “There wasn’t a clear strategic vision around how the two companies would actually merge.”
  • The Post’s Margaret Sullivan pays tribute to Claire McNear, a journalist at The Ringer whose reporting on offensive past comments made by Mike Richards—the Jeopardy producer who led the search for a new host for the show, then, Dick Cheney-style, got the job himself—contributed to Richards not becoming the host after all. McNear, Sullivan writes, did “basic vetting” that proved beyond Sony, Jeopardy’s parent company.
  • For CJR, Scott Winter profiles Arbana Xharra, a prominent journalist in Kosovo, in the Balkans, who covered corruption and Islamic radicalism, then joined the ruling party with the goal of creating an anti-terrorism office. Shortly afterward, a group of assailants attacked Xharra; the case remains unresolved, and Xharra believes that officials were never serious about finding her attackers. She now works at New York University.
  • Human Rights Watch has concluded that Israel “apparently violated the laws of war” when it leveled four tower blocks in Gaza in May. One of the towers housed offices belonging to Al Jazeera and the AP; Israel said that Hamas had also been operating out of the building, but HRW “found no evidence that members of Palestinian groups involved in military operations had a current or long-term presence in any of the towers.”
  • Last week, authorities in Algeria took Lina TV, a privately-owned news network, off the air; they cited a breach of licensing laws, but press-freedom watchers called that a pretext for censorship. Yesterday, officials suspended El Bilad TV for a week, on the grounds that its programming put children at risk, and moved to shutter El Djazaïria One, citing threats to “public security.” (I wrote in February about press freedom in Algeria.)
  • Recorded Future, a cybersecurity company, concluded in a report that the Chinese state is likely sponsoring an intense online smear campaign against the BBC, seemingly in retaliation against the broadcaster’s coverage of human-rights abuses in the country. Websites and social-media accounts involved in the campaign have pushed the narrative that the BBC uses a “gloom filter” to make China look dull. Wired has more.
  • And at midnight, Kathy Hochul was sworn in as the governor of New York, replacing Andrew Cuomo, who resigned amid a sexual-harassment scandal. In a taped farewell address, Cuomo described himself as the victim of a “political and media stampede.” He also, per the Albany Times Union, left his dog behind. Cuomo’s spokesman denied this (“I can’t believe this is what I’m dealing with right now, when I’m dealing with a major storm,” he said), but the New York Post still splashed the headline “DOG GONE.”

ICYMI: “In Kosovo, everybody has their own truth”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.