This is what life is like when the Kremlin lists you as a ‘foreign agent’

Police detain a journalist holding a poster that reads "We will not stop being journalists" during picketing in Moscow on Aug. 21. (Denis Kaminev/AP)
Police detain a journalist holding a poster that reads "We will not stop being journalists" during picketing in Moscow on Aug. 21. (Denis Kaminev/AP)

“This message was created by foreign mass media performing the function of a foreign agent”. Under Russian law, this is what I have to write every time I publicly post anything online — whether it’s a cat photo on Instagram, a birthday wish for a friend or this article. I have no other choice — because I’m a journalist.

If I fail to include such a disclaimer — or if I commit one of the many other possible violations of the Russian foreign agent law meant to silence freedom of the press and freedom of speech — I risk going to prison. It is just one of the many ways the Russian government is keeping journalists behind bars.

Three years ago I created an investigative reporting site called Proekt. Over the past few months, the authorities began treating me and my colleagues like public enemy number one. First they charged us with criminal libel; then they raided our apartments and brought us in for interrogation.

Finally, they designated Proekt an “undesirable organization” and labeled most of our employees, including me, “foreign agents”. (Our company is registered in the United States, so any salary paid to our employees counts as foreign funding.) Adding the ridiculous language to our posts is just one of the problems. The law makes it nearly impossible for our outlet to operate inside Russia. Any journalist, expert or whistleblower who talks to us faces imprisonment for up to five years.

But not all of the punishments imposed on us are spelled out in the law. As I write this article, people associated with the Russian security agencies are tracking my family on the streets of Moscow and filming my kids while verbally abusing them as part of a calculated campaign of intimidation — one that has no basis in Russian law. (I’m currently outside the country.)

The 21 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule have been difficult for Russian journalists, but it is no exaggeration to say that we are experiencing the most dramatic moment in the history of Russian media right now. Never before has the pace of deterioration been so rapid. In the first eight months of 2021, six independent media outlets were designated as foreign agents — a status that threatens their survival because it deters advertisers. The authorities used the law to effectively drive Russia’s largest independent news site, Meduza, out of business; its journalists responded by organizing a crowdfunding campaign to keep it going.

And earlier this month, the authorities applied the label to Russia’s last free television channel, TV Dozhd, known for its criticism of the government. Four websites have been blocked, while 14 organizations (including Proekt) have been declared “undesirable” over the course of this year. More than 10 searches were carried out in the homes and editorial offices of journalists, and as a result many journalists were forced to leave Russia for security reasons.

We can draw two conclusions from all of this. The first is that the media remains the most important check on Putin’s authoritarian regime. For years, Russian journalists did not understand the impact they were having on the situation in the country. High-profile investigations, including revelations of corruption in Putin’s inner circle, failed to trigger the resignation or prosecution of officials caught in lies and thefts. This demoralized many journalists.

But such reactions were shortsighted. In the press release justifying Proekt’s designation as a foreign agent, the Russian authorities claim that the company “pose a threat to the foundations of the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation”. No one believes more in the power of investigative journalism than the Kremlin.

The second point is that the attack on the Russian media goes hand in hand with the steadily intensifying crackdown on public life, politics and education. There is no way to list all the prohibitions and sanctions against citizens that Russian authorities have imposed this year. All this suggests that Putin’s regime has entered survival mode: Everyone who has challenged his right to rule Russia will be declared an enemy, expelled from the country, thrown into prison or killed.

Now more than ever, we Russian journalists need the support of our colleagues around the world, international organizations and national governments. They should urge the Russian government to respect the rights of journalists to go about their work as well as the rights of Russian citizens to access honest and independent information. Our international supporters should also call on social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to open a dialogue with Russian journalists. Independent journalism has responded to the rising government pressure by relying more and more on social media outlets. All too often, however, the platforms delete or block accounts with no explanation and no one to contact. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The international community must act. To do otherwise is to become complicit in the Russian government’s efforts to silence our society.

Roman Badanin, the chief editor of investigative news outlet Proekt, is a John S. Knight Senior International Fellow at Stanford University.

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