On Fridays, the Russian government has a tendency to label Russian journalists and media as foreign agents. This witch hunt leads to their bankruptcy and closure, silencing the voices of those exercising their freedom of speech by criticizing the government, and reinforcing a one-sided narrative in Russia’s population. The Russian government’s actions have even led to international concern. On October 28, 2021, the U.S. Department of State published a statement on Media Freedom in Russia regarding the Russian government’s harassment of independent media outlets and journalists in Russia. This text was signed by 18 members of the Media Freedom Coalition including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. The US government says that it reiterates its “condemnation of the Russian government’s targeting and harassment of independent journalists and media outlets” mentioning the “foreign agent” label on non-governmental Russian outlets operating within or near Russia’s borders. In this article, you will get to know some main points about the “foreign agent” label and how it is threatening Russian journalism.
What Does “Foreign Agent” Mean?
On 4 June 2012, the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, signed the Regulation of the Activities of Non-profit Organisations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent”. According to this law, Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that participate in political activity (influencing public opinion and public policy, including sending requests and petitions) and that receive funding from foreign sources can be declared foreign agents. Nowadays, the Russian Ministry of Justice has a tradition to add individuals, NGOs, and media outlets to its list of foreign agents on any Friday of every month. After numerous amendments to the law, almost anyone can become a foreign agent. A person just needs to meet two criteria: 1) to distribute materials of a medium that performs functions of a “foreign agent” (an organization that is engaged in “political activity” on Russian soil that is in the interest of a foreign source); 2) to receive income from abroad (no matter what this money is paid for).
Being a foreign agent means labeling all content you post with a sign that the message (any tweet, comment, or post) is made or distributed by a foreign agent. The statement consists of 24 words,
“Данное сообщение (материал) создано и (или) распространено иностранным средством массовой информации, выполняющим функции иностранного агента, и (или) российским юридическим лицом, выполняющим функции иностранного агента.”
This sign must be twice as big as the main text and should be put right under a headline. In audiovisual materials, it must be put in the beginning and last for 15 seconds. What is more, foreign agents must submit to the Ministry of Justice a report on their activities and income once a quarter, and it is also mandatory to undergo an audit and submit its results to the Ministry annually. Violating the above-mentioned responsibilities entails fines and even imprisonment.
The Reality of Foreign Agents
Since the beginning of 2021, the Russian Ministry of Justice has registered 77 new foreign agents. Nowadays, the blacklist consists of 174 foreign agents, among them 32 are media outlets, 56 are individuals and 3 are not even officially registered social movements. The lives of foreign agents are full of difficulties. Submitting various reports and humiliating labels push back advertisers, the main sources of the media’s income. Voluntary donations from readers and individuals are not enough to fund a high-quality media outlet. This results in salary shortages and job cuts. Furthermore, the status of “foreign agent” deprives the media of most of its coverage as many officials, businessmen, and even analysts are afraid to give comments to these media. Some of the “foreign agent” organizations could not stay alive and were forced to close. For instance, on May 14, 2021, the Ministry of Justice added the VTimes publisher website’s administrator to its list of “foreign agent” media. After three weeks of studying different “scenarios for the continuation of VTimes’ activities” the publisher concluded that “there was a risk of criminal prosecution of our employees with the possibility of imprisonment” and decided to stop working. Every foreign agent media and journalist has criticized Putin’s politics, held investigations about his and the government’s illegal treasures, and wrote about countrywide protests. For instance, foreign agents like The Insider and Bellingcat are co-authors of an investigation that proves Navalny’s poisoning, a Russian opposition leader, was done by the Federal Security Service. This annoys Russian authorities and interferes with their illegal actions. The only way to shut these media up is by stimulating their bankruptcy by labeling them as “a foreign agent”.
The proof submitted by the government in most foreign agent cases is ridiculous. For example, in August 2021, a social movement for the protection of human rights, Golos (“The Voice”), joined the ranks of foreign agents solely on the grounds of a 200 rubles (2,81$) donation by an Armenian citizen, and because Golos does not have any bank account for donations the Russian Department of Justice refused to provide the bank statement. Moreover, a Russian journalist Petr Manyakhin became a foreign agent in July 2021 as a consequence of bank transfers in U.S. dollars that Petr made himself, moving money between his own accounts. The Justice Ministry’s evidence against Manyakhin also included a retweeted message in support of Latvian foreign agent media Meduza that publishes materials in Russian and English. Thus, everyone can become a foreign agent, even though there is not enough evidence of one’s international financial activity. Putin can pick and choose who to condemn as a foreign agent based on false pretenses for his own self-benefit, and this does not hold.
Vladimir Putin was asked about the “foreign agent” law multiple times during his public conferences. In his usual manner, he replied with counter-accusations about the American government’s actions. He gave an example of RT (formerly Russia Today), an international television network whose subsidiary company RT America was forced to register as a foreign agent with the United States Department of Justice National Security Division under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. From 2017, RT must label all US material “on behalf of” the Russian government. Ironically, a month after this event, in December 2017, the Russian government claimed an American international broadcaster Voice of America and Radio Free/Radio Liberty foreign agents. However, Putin’s example of RT is not relevant to comparing today’s actions of the Russian Justice Ministry. He himself admitted that RT was designed and is funded by the Russian government, “Certainly the channel is funded by the government, so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position on the events in our country and in the rest of the world one way or another.” In contrast, all new foreign agents in Russia are labeled without proper evidence. During his last public conference on October 21, Putin promised that the Kremlin would review vague criteria in the law. But why should Russians believe their government’s promises after so many years of lying and ignoring citizens’ demands? The “foreign agents” law is another way of destroying democracy and enhancing Putin’s dictatorship in Russia. A free press is a fundamental aspect of modern civil society. Without independent journalism, citizens do not have access to unbiased information, cannot be aware of society’s true problems, and people are unmotivated to take part in politics and civic life.
This Is When We Fight Back Even Harder
According to the “foreign agents” law’s criteria, I am a perfect candidate for this unfair labeling as I meet the two criteria. I write and publish journalistic articles about Putin’s regime and repost foreign agents’ content. I also receive money from an international organization. But am I really that dangerous for society as Putin’s regime would likely paint me to be? No, I am a writer who wants to inform and educate readers. Maybe the real question is how dangerous is my voice, and the voices of my fellow foreign agents, not for society, but for the legitimacy of Putin’s regime? All of us want people to know that Vladimir Putin is a dictator whose legitimacy can be doubted. Our goal is not to bring him down, it is to make the Russian society aware and conscious. These tireless efforts from the government to stop our voices from being heard, this baseless law surrounding foreign agents, is just proof that we are aiming in the right direction. They know we can make a change, so they try to shut us up. But this is when we fight back even harder.
I will keep donating to foreign agents as I like reading Meduza’s articles, using OVD-info’s (human rights’ protection media-project) protesting instructions, watching TV Rain’s (Russian independent television channel) coverages, and analyzing Levada Center’s (independent polling agency) polls results. I am proud of this independent part of Russian journalism and feel lucky to be able to read it in the Russian language. The Russian government must immediately stop repressing Russian non-governmental organizations, media, and journalists. Because if one thing is for sure, it is that we won’t stop voicing our opinions.