Friday is the cruelest day for Russia’s opposition. In small, overheated flats, coffee houses and newsrooms, journalists hover over their screens waiting to see if the Motherland has painted them with a stigma close to “traitor.”
Independent journalists see this as an indelible smear. Russian President Vladimir Putin insists it is not intended to muzzle or censor – but to merely inform readers and viewers that some of the media they’re consuming has foreign funding.
“This law does not ban anyone from having one’s own opinion on an issue. It is about receiving financial aid from abroad during domestic political activities,” Putin said recently.
For Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, this is the Kremlin’s latest move in the campaign to snuff out independent journalism and all that remains of Russia’s effective opposition.
“While in the 1990s and in the early 2000s journalists were killed by hired assassins, as it happened with our journalist Anna Politkovskaya, for example – now it is a policy of soft strangling that is happening with the help of the foreign agents law,” he told CNN.
As editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, he’s lost six colleagues from the paper in the fight for truth. Most famous among them was Politkovskaya. American-born but fiercely committed to Russia, she was gunned down on the threshold of her Moscow flat 15 years ago.
Politkovskaya’s former office in the paper’s building is part museum, part investigation hub. Documents and photographs cover an entire wall, allegations and suspects webbed together with black thread.
“When a media outlet is declared ‘undesirable’ it has to declare itself a public enemy, which means it effectively stops operating,” says the bearded boss, who’s already given his Nobel prize money to charities for children and journalistic causes.
Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia, as president, then prime minister, now president again, since New Year’s Eve, 1999. Over those 22 years, journalists and opposition politicians have been murdered and their killers are seldom, if ever, identified.
“Being an opposition politician, an independent journalist or blogger is clearly a risky business in Russia. Over a dozen have been murdered or died in suspicious circumstances. Many others have suffered violent attacks. Few of these crimes see an effective investigation which perpetuates a climate of impunity,” Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch’s Moscow-based associate director for Europe and Central Asia, told CNN.
Whoever ordered Politkovskaya’s assassination remains at large.
Five Chechen men were convicted, in 2017, of the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin two years earlier. But no one has identified who offered them a 15 million ruble bounty the court said they were promised for the murder.
Politicians, like Alexey Navalny, have been jailed on what they insist are trumped up charges. And Navalny continues to suffer from the effects of poisoning by 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. Being designated as a foreign agent, arguably, adds to the dangers they face.
Especially as Putin remains popular with the majority of Russians.
“Putin relies on the love and loyalty of over 70% of Russians. And he’s the president of the majority. And as far as the interests of the minority are concerned, he’s not their president. And it’s their newspapers that are labeled as foreign agents, their opposition gets crushed, their leaders are put in jail,” says Muratov.
The recent application of the 2017 media law, which at last count has designated 88 outlets and individuals as “foreign agents,” has been a blow to the solar plexus of journalists who see their work as a patriotic duty.
The studios of Dozhd TV (TV Rain) buzz with the same hipster energy that fills the renovated warehouses filed with galleries and designer shops around it. But it’s an anxious thrum. In August the media company found itself on the list of new “foreign agents.”
A government-mandated red warning fills the screen ahead of every new segment in every show. It’s also compulsory in every tweet prominent on the channel’s website.
“THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) IS CREATED AND (OR) DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA PERFORMING THE FUNCTION OF A FOREIGN AGENT, AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY PEFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT,” it says.
In Stalin’s days, which are very much in Russia’s living memory, such a designation would have led to a quick show trial and, for the lucky few, a bullet in the back of the head. The unfortunate would have been shipped off to a slow death among millions of other victims of Soviet purges.
“When you are designated as a foreign agent, you are basically called the enemy of the state; because if you work for some another state then you are working against your own state, which is not true, of course. But it in Russia with its own terrible history, it means a lot. It means that it is not safe to work with you,” explains Tikhon Dzyadko, editor in chief at TV Rain.
“If you do not mark any of your materials [with the red warning], even the photo of cute little puppies from New Zealand, if you forget to use these 24 words saying that this material is ‘created by a foreign agent,’ you could be fined 300,000 rubles, the second time 1 million rubles, the third time, I guess, 5 million rubles. And then if we do not pay, there could be a criminal case against me and the owner of TV Rain,” he explains.
He says that so far advertising revenue has not been badly hit, and that it’s a small fraction of the company’s income. But the commercial implications are obvious and he says he’d struggle to see why someone advertising cars would want their publicity alongside a government allegation that’s at best unpatriotic.
Other sites, he said, had seen their revenues plummet by 90%.
There’s a Kafkaesque element to Russia’s latest apparent attempts to silence opposition with the “foreign agent” label. Putin’s argument – that it’s not censorship, just an accurate picture of where funding comes from – isn’t reflected in the designations of the government news agency Tass, or Interfax, Russia’s dominant news service.
Technically any or every news organization that gets any funding, however insignificant, from outside the country can be designated a “foreign agent.” But that isn’t true of the pro-Kremlin outfits.
Both Tass and Interfax – according to Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media – are in receipt of foreign funds but have avoided designation as “foreign agents.”
So, indeed, is the holding company which owns RT, formerly known as Russia Today. In January 2017, US intelligence agencies accused the TV network of being part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.”
Putin has repeatedly said that the Russian designations, which coincidentally followed RT’s own travails in Washington in 2017, simply mirror US legislation. There aren’t any American journalists on the run from their own government, though.
Roman Dobrokhotov is in hiding in Europe. He’s editor in chief of the recently designated “foreign agent” The Insider, a news site specializing in investigations that gets some funding from outside Russia.
He would not disclose his location to CNN. His wife, children, and wider family have all followed him.
In Russia he’s accused of defaming a broadly pro-Putin Dutch blogger. It’s an allegation Dobrokhotov hotly denies. But repeated raids by police on his own home, and his parents’ residence, have meant that he feared worse would follow.
The latest round of what he calls state intimidation came after he worked with foreign media and his own site on an investigation into the poisoning of Navalny with the Novichok nerve agent in Russia.
“Everybody understands this is the toughest times for Russian journalism since Soviet Union, even since actually Stalin’s era,” he says.
The award of the Nobel to Muratov and Maria Ressa, a Filipino journalist who, like him, has fought hard for press freedom, may offer him some protection… for now.
Nobel Laureate Muratov, who says that the newspaper doesn’t get any funding from outside Russia, sighs: “If they do want to declare us foreign agents, they will. There is no way we could protect ourselves against it. This decision is taken extrajudicially and without trial.”