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May 5, 2021 - Updated on May 6, 2021

Listed as a "foreign agent", Russia's most popular independent website risks disappearing

Screenshot of the Meduza website.
Haemorrhaging advertisers even since the Russian justice ministry listed it as a “foreign agent,” the news website Meduza has been forced to close bureaux and slash salaries in the past week. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the listing as a serious violation of media pluralism and urges Russia to repeal its draconian “foreign agents” law.

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“The authorities’ goal is to kill Meduza,” said Ivan Kolpakov, the editor of what is Russia’s most popular independent news website. Founded in Riga, the capital of neighbouring Latvia, in 2014, Meduza has been reeling ever since the Russian justice ministry added it to its list of “foreign agents” on 23 April. It plans to challenge the decision in the courts.


Meduza claims more than 13 million unique visitors a month but in the past few days it has had to close its offices in Riga and Moscow, cut staff salaries by between 30 and 50% and stop using freelancers. The site depends mainly on advertising, but has already lost many advertisers and expects more to go soon. In a bid to resist the drastic loss in revenue and keep reporting, it has launched an appeal for donations.


“This announcement is a massive blow to media pluralism in Russia,” said Jeanne Cavelier. “Meduza was set up outside the country so that its editorial staff could work with complete independence in the face of the increasing attempts by the authorities to control online media since the big protests in 2011 and 2012. We call on the Russian justice ministry to abolish this draconian and defamatory register of ‘foreign agent’ media, which exists solely to enable the government to tighten its grip on the press.”


Originally adopted in 2017, the law on “foreign agent” media outlets has been repeatedly amended since then to make it more restrictive and binding. Like PASMI, another independent news site that was added to the list the same day, Meduza must now post a “Foreign Agent” label over every single piece of content (text, audio, video and even advertising) and in a font that is twice the size that it normally uses.


This designation aims to discredit the media outlet in its readers’ eyes but also imposes a heavy administrative burden in the form of declarations of all income and spending that have to be filed with the justice ministry. Meduza’s correspondents in Russia are also facing the possibility of being declared “foreign agents” themselves. If Meduza does not comply, the authorities could impose heavy fines on it or even block the site.


This is what could happen to the Russian offshoots of the US broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Ordered to pay nearly two million euros in fines after refusing to comply with the “foreign agent” label,” they could end up disappearing from the media landscape. RFE/RL has appealed to the Russian courts, so far in vain, and has filed a petition with the European Court of Human Rights.


After falling one place in the past year, Russia is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.