Independent journalists see it as an indelible stain. Russian President Vladimir Putin insists this is not about muzzling or censoring, but simply informing readers and viewers that some of the media they consume is funded from abroad.
“This law does not prevent anyone from having their own opinion on an issue. It is about receiving financial aid from abroad for domestic political activities,” Putin said recently.
As editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, he lost six colleagues at the newspaper in the fight for the truth. The most famous of them was Politkovskaya. Born in the United States but fiercely attached to Russia, she was shot dead on the doorstep of her Moscow apartment 15 years ago.
The former Politkovskaya office in the newspaper building is both a museum and an investigative center. Documents and photographs cover an entire wall, allegations and suspects tangled in black thread.
“When a medium is declared ‘undesirable’, it has to declare itself a public enemy, which means that it effectively ceases to function,” explains the bearded boss, who has already presented his Nobel Prize to charities for children and journalistic causes.
“Being an opposition politician, journalist or freelance blogger is clearly a risky business in Russia. More than a dozen were murdered or died under suspicious circumstances. Many others have suffered violent attacks. Few of these crimes see an effective investigation that perpetuates a climate of impunity, ”Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch associate director for Europe and Central Asia, based in Moscow, told CNN.
Whoever ordered the assassination of Politkovskaya is still at large.
Politicians like Alexey Navalny have been jailed on what they claim to be trumped up charges. And Navalny continues to suffer from the effects of poisoning with Novichok, a nerve agent known only to have been produced by the Russian state.
Independent journalists don’t believe the physical dangers to them have gone away. Several have fled into exile. The fact of being designated as a foreign agent undoubtedly adds to the dangers they face.
Especially since Putin remains popular with the majority of Russians.
“Putin relies on the love and loyalty of over 70% of Russians. And he is the president of the majority. And when it comes to the interests of the minority, he is not their president. are their newspapers which are qualified as foreign agents., their opposition is crushed, their leaders are put in jail “, says Muratov.
The recent application of the 2017 Media Law, which at last count designated 88 media outlets and individuals as “foreign agents”, has dealt a blow to the solar plexus of journalists who view their work as a patriotic duty.
A government-mandated red warning fills the screen before each new segment of each show. It’s also mandatory in every tweet visible on the channel’s website.
“THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) IS CREATED AND (OR) DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MEDIA EXERCISING THE DUTY OF FOREIGN AGENT, AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY PERFORMING THE DUTIES OF FOREIGN AGENT,” he said.
In the days of Stalin, which is well in the living memory of Russia, such a designation would have led to a quick show trial and, for the lucky few, a bullet in the head. The unfortunate would have been sent to a slow death among millions of other victims of the Soviet purges.
“When you are designated as a foreign agent, you are essentially called the enemy of the state; because if you are working for another state, you are working against your own state, which is not true of course. But it is in Russia with its own terrible history, it means a lot. This means that it is not safe to work with you, ”says Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of TV Rain.
“If you do not mark any of your documents [with the red warning], even the photo of cute little New Zealand puppies, if you forget to use those 24 words saying this material is “created by a foreign agent” you could be fined 300,000 rubles the second time around 1 million rubles, the third time, I guess, 5 million rubles. And if we don’t pay, there could be a criminal case against me and the owner of TV Rain, ”he explains.
He says ad revenue has not been hit hard so far and only represents a small fraction of the company’s revenue. But the business implications are obvious, and he says he would be hard pressed to see why someone advertising cars would want them advertised alongside a government claim that is unpatriotic at best.
Other sites, he said, saw their revenues drop 90%.
There is a Kafkaesque element in Russia’s latest apparent attempts to silence the opposition with the label “foreign agent”. Putin’s argument – that this is not censorship, but simply a clear picture of where the funding is coming from – is not reflected in the designations of the government news agency Tass or Interfax, the dominant news service in Russia.
Technically, any or every news organization that obtains even insignificant funding from outside the country can be referred to as a “foreign agent”. But this is not the case with pro-Kremlin outfits.
Putin has repeatedly said that Russian designations, which coincidentally followed RT’s own struggles in Washington in 2017, simply reflect US law. However, there are no American journalists on the run from their own government.
Roman Dobrokhotov is in hiding in Europe. He is the editor of the recently appointed “foreign agent” The Insider, an investigative news site that obtains funding from outside Russia.
He did not want to disclose his location to CNN. His wife, children and extended family all followed him.
In Russia, he is accused of defaming a largely pro-Putin Dutch blogger. This is an allegation that Dobrokhotov strongly denies. But repeated police raids on her own home and her parents’ residence have made her fear the worst will follow.
The latest round of what he calls state intimidation came after working with foreign media and his own site on an investigation into Navalny’s poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok in Russia.
“Everyone understands that this is the most difficult time for Russian journalism since the Soviet Union, even since the Stalin era,” he says.
The award of the Nobel to Muratov and Maria Ressa, a Filipino journalist who, like him, fought hard for press freedom, may offer him some protection … for now.
Nobel laureate Muratov, who says the newspaper receives no funding from outside Russia, sighs: “If they want to declare us foreign agents, they will. We cannot protect ourselves against this. This decision is made. extrajudicially and without judgment. “