Putin’s crackdown: how Russia’s journalists became ‘foreign agents’


Usually the bad news is dumped late on Friday when most Muscovites are heading out for the evening: a new list of names of journalists and outlets declared “foreign agents”, a label that for some Russians evokes such Soviet-era terms as “enemy of the people” and has sent a chill through newsrooms under threat.

“We are being told that we are the enemy,” said Tikhon Dzyadko, the editor of Dozhd, Russia’s main independent television station and a recent addition to the list. “And I am not an enemy and I am not an agent. It’s a spit in the face.”

For more than a decade, the Kremlin has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s independent media. Outlets with independent journalists were periodically purged by their businessmen or state owners. Those journalists found new jobs, then founded new media, and sought other means to protect their work, sources and livelihood from the threat of a new government crackdown.

But in the past year, since the protests in neighbouring Belarus, the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and Vladimir Putin’s “resetting” of his presidential terms, the Kremlin is taking broader steps to bring the media and individual journalists to heel. Some think it’s possible to keep on reporting, but others see it as a death knell for the profession of journalism.

Alexei Navalny inside a glass cage
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a court hearing in Moscow, 20 February 2021. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

“This is a law that basically bans the profession. It’s not a law about foreign agents, it’s a ban on independent journalism,” said Roman Anin, a veteran investigative journalist and founder of the iStories media outlet recently added to the list. Targeted with raids and a criminal case, he is now working from elsewhere in Europe and is “not sure when I can come back”.

“I think returning when I can be imprisoned, and that is possible, is pretty stupid,” he said.

Passed in 2017, Russia’s law on foreign agents has been a looming, if somewhat undefined, threat. At the moment, it requires outlets and even individual journalists to provide detailed financial reports and to affix an all-caps warning to their content: “THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND (OR) DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MEDIA OUTLET, PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT, AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY, PERFORMING THE FUNCTION OF A FOREIGN AGENT.” The text must be posted on everything – articles, videos, Instagram stories, even on Twitter jokes that have nothing to do with politics.

But the concern is that it could also be used to bankrupt or block those outlets from writing on certain topics, such as elections or court cases, and eventually silence the independent press en masse.

At the moment, 47 outlets, journalists and activists have been added to the register, including Meduza, Dozhd, investigative outlets iStories and the Insider, the US Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and its affiliates, and the veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, co-founder of the Memorial human rights organisation.

Russian officials have compared it to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act but the Russian version is far more aggressive, targeting news agencies that have little or no connection to foreign governments and requiring them to comply with onerous labelling requirements on all their content or face stiff fines and potential criminal liability.

“There are already so many decent people and publications on the list that it would be simply indecent not to be there,” iStories said in a statement when it was added.

What has been less clear is what exactly it means to become a foreign agent. Enter Sonya Groysman, a 27-year-old reporter from Novosibirsk who recently became one of about 10 journalists to be declared a “foreign agent”.

She found out she had been labelled as such while watching a storm gather on a beach in Sochi, where she was on holiday after Proekt, the online outlet where she worked, had been declared an “undesirable organisation”. When she got the news, she said, she “sobbed all across the beach”.

Since then she and a former colleague, Olga Churakova, have created a podcast called “Hi, you’re a foreign agent,” investigating what their new status means for their lives. The two-hander often features them talking about their new status with family members and colleagues, asking a bewildered manager whether they can work at a fast-food outlet as a “foreign agent”, and discussing whether you can even take money out of an ATM or borrow it from friends without falling foul of financial reporting rules.

Podcasters Olga Churakova, left, and Sonya Groysman.
Podcasters Olga Churakova, left, and Sonya Groysman. Photograph: Nanna Heitmann/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Besides serving as a kind of “public therapy”, their podcast has also helped to keep them in journalism, showing “all the absurdities” of the new rules and demystifying a label that has filled many independent journalists (as well as NGOs and other civic organisations) with dread.

“It has really, really helped,” she said. “Professionally too. It would be one case if we just sat around unemployed with this label, trying to think how we should live and everyone just felt bad for us. And here we truly feel that despite everything we are doing something, that you’re needed … If this is how we can be part of public life, stay in the profession, then it’s great.”

The laws are seen as a response to investigative reporting on the Kremlin, but they threaten an entire creative ecosystem of reporting in Russia. Groysman’s work is eclectic and sensitive – a favourite video piece followed schoolchildren from Vzvad, a village 370 miles from Moscow, travelling to the capital for the first time to stage a play about a trip on a marshrutka, or public taxi.

Another podcast of hers that I listened to as I covered the coronavirus outbreak last year followed the lives of frontline doctors in Covid hospitals.

She has documented the bizarre world of government employees who obsessively curate their agencies’ Wikipedia entries and spoken with the family of Ivan Safronov, a former journalist jailed more than a year ago on treason charges. That piece came out just as her own colleagues at Proekt were being targeted with raids, a coincidence that she said “says everything you need to know about journalism in Russia now”.

Journalist Sonya Groysman is arrested
Journalist Sonya Groysman is arrested in Moscow last month for a protest in support of independent media. Photograph: Nanna Heitmann/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Their new role has thrust the young women and their colleagues into the uncomfortable role of activists (Groysman was arrested at a picket in support of journalists last month). Juggling interviews and recording the podcast, she says, it feels like “our new job is to be foreign agents”.

It entails enough work to be a job. The formal requirements, such as attaching disclaimers to all of your social media content and filing quarterly reports, are matched by the social impact of being declared a public enemy.

“You start to live much more carefully. You start to filter what you say publicly and what you write online because I know that there are a bunch of informers following my social media and waiting for when I make a mistake,” she said.

This may be the endgame of the Putin’s long effort to tame the Russian media. That campaign began in 2000, the year Putin became president and quickly moved to take control of the critical television channel NTV, briefly jailing its businessman owner Vladimir Gusinsky before it was sold to a state-owned company. A political puppet show called Kukly that had routinely roasted Putin soon disappeared from the air.

But some say Putin’s disdain for journalists goes back to the 1990s, when he saw the power of the press sink his mentor Anatoly Sobchak’s mayoral campaign in…


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