Founded last year by journalists who had left the business daily Vedomosti, VTimes decided to shut down for good on 12 June, Russia’s independence day. “The risk of criminal proceedings was too great, both for management and journalists,” VTimes co-founder and journalist Aleksandr Gubski told RSF.
After being added to the “foreign agents” register, VTimes lost not only its advertisers but also most of its sources – government officials, businessmen and specialists – because they were scared to provide comments to a “foreign agent.” Vtimes is registered in Russia and does not receive foreign money. According to Gubski, the website administrator’s location in the Netherlands was the grounds for its inclusion on the register.
Other media outlets risk suffering the same fate. They include Meduza, Russia’s most popular online media, which is headquartered in Riga, the capital of neighbouring Latvia. Its situation is no less critical although Galina Timchenko, its CEO, recently denied rumours that it is closing down.
A new “Berlin Wall” is being built, she said in an interview for the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank. Meduza is losing 2 million euros a month in revenue because advertisers no longer want to work with the site. In a matter of weeks, it has had to close its bureaux in Riga and Moscow, forcing journalists to work from home, cut salaries by between 30 and 50% and stop using freelancers. The pressure is such that eight of its journalists have left of their own accord because the “foreign agent” status exposed them to the risk of criminal proceedings and forced them to write 80-page expenses reports ever quarter. Those still working for the site are having difficulties getting quotes from people.
The situation is just as problematic for Radio Svoboda, the Russian offshoot of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a US government-funded broadcaster based in Prague. It has been ordered to pay heavy fines for refusing to comply with the requirements of its “foreign agent” status, its Russian bank accounts have been frozen since 14 May, and Roskomnadzor, the federal communications agency, has brought “repetition of offence” proceedings against it.
“The gradual disappearance of independent outlets from the Russian media landscape in the past few years and the recent acceleration of this process are very disturbing,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We urge Vladimir Putin and the Russian justice ministry to immediately repeal the ‘foreign agents’ law, which is undermining media pluralism, throttling independent media and slowly killing them off.”
Only a handful of independent media outlets are managing to survive the growing pressure from the authorities. They include the leading Moscow-based investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which was recently hit by a chemical attack and which was ordered on 15 April to delete a story questioning Chechnya’s authoritarian handling of the pandemic.
The TV broadcaster Dozhd is often subjected to intimidation attempts, as are regional media outlets such as Fortanga, a news website in the Caucasian Republic of Ingushetia, Chernovik, a weekly based in the Caucasian Republic of Dagestan, and Novye Kolesa, a weekly based in the western enclave of Kaliningrad.
All journalists are now affected by the “foreign agents” law, which was originally promulgated in November 2017 and nearly signed a death sentence for the opposition newspaper The New Times the following year. Since December 2020, when a disturbing amendment was signed into law, the justice ministry can also add individual journalists and bloggers to the register.
Radio Svoboda’s Lyudmila Savitskaya and Sergei Markelov, and Pskovskaya Guberniya news site editor Denis Kamalyagin were the first to have to register as “foreign agents” with the justice ministry and submit to extremely time-consuming red tape or face a fine of 30,000 to 50,000 roubles (330 to 550 euros) or up two years in prison. Gazeta.SPb’s editor was recently fined 4,000 roubles (45 euros) for failing to identify an organisation as a “foreign agent” in a story.
Media owners, Kremlin allies
The Russian government has worked hard to destabilise media outlets in recent years. Around 20 draconian laws targeting both traditional and online media were passed in the wake of the major anti-Putin demonstrations in 2012. A law enacted in 2015 banned foreigners from holding more than a 20-percent share in any Russian media outlet, forcing Vedomosti’s founders – The Wall Street Journal, the UK’s Financial Times and the Finnish media group Sanoma – to sell their stakes in this business daily.
The same law forced Germany’s Axel Springer media group to sell the investigative news monthly Forbes Russia to Alexander Fedotov, the owner of an advertising and glamour press empire, who thought it was “a bit too politicised” and tried to influence its editorial policies, getting into a fight with its staff. In a rare victory for Russian journalists, it was finally sold in 2018 to a Dagestani businessman who has shown more respect for its editorial independence.
But battles between editorial staff and owners often end in grief. So it was with Kommersant, a business daily acquired by a media group owned by pro-Kremlin oligarch Alisher Usmanov. The newspaper’s politics sections nearly disappeared in May 2019 after two reporters were fired for refusing to name their sources for a sensitive political story.
RBC, Russia’s biggest independent media group, one at the forefront of investigative reporting on corruption, was sold to pro-Kremlin publisher Grigory Berezkin in 2017, a year after its management was forced to resign. Berezkin bought Saint Petersburg quality newspaper Delovoy Peterburg, the same year, since when a member of Delovoy Peterburg’s editorial staff has deplored the loss of its critical approach. Earlier this month, Berezkin revealed that he has sold Delovoy Peterburg to Izvestia, a media group owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, a billionaire banker close to Putin.
Roskomnadzor, media predator
Russia’s best-known independent broadcaster, Echo of Moscow radio, has resisted pressure as best it could since its acquisition in 2001 by the pro-Kremlin oil giant Gazprom. In April 2018, it became one of the first media outlets to pay a fine for linking to content deemed objectionable by the federal communications agency Roskomnadzor under a 2013 law banning swearing in the media.
Listed by RSF as a digital press freedom predator, Roskomnadzor has become increasingly intrusive since first establishing a blacklist of websites in 2012. Two years later, it blocked two news sites for the first time, the opposition sites Grani.ru and Ej.ru, eliciting condemnation of Russia by the European Court of Human Rights, which has also condemned all of the judicial and extra-judicial methods use by Russia to block websites for the past eight years.
Russia is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.