Readers of Meduza are now greeted by an unfamiliar sight at the top of every article: a block of text in 24-point Comic Sans font warning them Russia’s most popular independent news site is a “foreign agent”.
The disclaimer, accompanied by three facepalm emojis, heralds what the site told readers on Monday is “the death of Meduza as we know it”.
The Kremlin’s new restrictions on Meduza, which editor Ivan Kolpakov says may force it to shut down, come amid what reporters say is unprecedented pressure on independent journalism in Russia.
Police threatened to arrest several reporters this week for attending mass protest rallies in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny — even though they were clearly marked with IDs and press jackets.
And student journalists were charged earlier this month with “inciting minors to dangerous behaviour” by recording a video in support of students whose universities reportedly threatened to expel them for attending the Navalny rallies.
As Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin cracked down on the first rallies in January with unprecedented force, journalists appeared to be part of the collateral damage. Over 80 were arrested at one protest alone; police viciously beat reporters in full view of TV cameras; and the editor of an independent news site spent two weeks in jail over a protest-related tweet.
Now Russian journalists fear they have become targets themselves.
“It feels like the security wing is running Russian domestic politics now, and they’re used to solving all their problems the same way,” Kolpakov said. And since the few independent journalists who are left still play some role in this political game, then they need to deal with them the same way they deal with any other political problem.”
Russia has always been a difficult place to be a journalist. As many as 28 reporters have been murdered under Putin’s 20-year rule, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The state controls virtually all television news, while once-muckraking newspapers have been placed in the hands of pliant oligarch owners.
Like most of Russia’s independent media outlets, Meduza was founded by refugees from mainstream publications. But whereas its smaller peers mostly rely on crowdfunding and western grant money, Meduza managed to successfully carve out a niche for itself despite keeping most of its editorial operations in Latvia and never fully formalising its legal status in Russia.
Meduza’s Moscow-based journalists interviewed officials and dialled into Kremlin daily phone briefings, while state-owned companies made up a significant portion of its advertisers. When police arrested one of its star reporters on fabricated drug charges in 2019, establishment figures helped secure his release days later.
After Meduza was designated a foreign agent late last week, it was required to make onerous financial declarations it fears will scare off advertisers. The designation could also cut its reporters off from official sources and scare away potential readers, Kolpakov said.
“It completely destroys the company — the business we’ve built for the last six years,” he said.
The move was made under a law first passed to crack down on independent NGOs in the wake of protests against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. Last year, the Russian parliament rushed through a revamped version as part of a slate of repressive measures targeting dissent ahead of September’s parliamentary elections.
The new law requires “foreign agents” to file extensive reports on their financing and expands the definition to include individuals, who are barred from holding municipal government positions.
Though the designation appeared to be targeted at Navalny’s supporters — who won several city council seats in Siberia last autumn — three of the first five people added to the list last December were reporters.
Russia’s justice ministry has offered no explanation for the designation, and the Kremlin proffered little sympathy. “Listen, we deeply respect every media outlet . . . but the modern media market is set up in such a way that the disappearance of any media outlet won’t be felt strongly. Let’s be honest,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday.
Sergei Markelov, a reporter in Petrozavodsk in northern Russia, said his newfound foreign agent status required him to file regularly dozens of pages of financial documents and pay up to Rbs300,000 — several times the local average monthly wage — out of his own pocket for an audit.
“My wife went to see her friend, and her husband told her in complete seriousness, ‘I know that Serezha is working for western secret services,’” Markelov said. “It’s absurd. What am I going to tell western secret services about? Collective farms in the Republic of Karelia?”
A hint of what awaits journalists who do not comply came earlier in April when police arrested four editors at student website Doxa for recording their video in support of students’ right to protest.
Peskov appeared to justify the charges by saying that Doxa “had started out as a student publication, but it’s been political for a long time — there’s not much about student issues”.
Doxa was hardly the most high-profile target for a crackdown. It made its name by adopting a leftwing perspective on issues such as the precariousness of academic work, sexual harassment at universities and academic censorship.
The fact that it crossed officials’ radar at all indicates the Kremlin’s concern with dissent among young people, who have made up a sizeable contingent at the Navalny protests, said Anastasia Podorozhnaya, whose partner Armen Aramyan is one of the arrested Doxa editors.
“It’s no surprise that they came after a student magazine,” Podorozhnaya said. “People in their twenties are very strongly against Putin and very strongly for Navalny.”
She added: “I don’t think any of the guys who published the video had any idea there would be consequences. But anything in Russia can have consequences . . . [T]hey can come after you for any reason at any time.”
Meduza plans to fight its designation in court while its reporters attempt to do their jobs as usual — in difficult conditions. On Wednesday, police summoned reporter Kristina Safonova to the station and demanded she prove she had been covering the Navalny protests, rather than taking part in them.
“The situation is absolutely horrible,” Kolpakov said. “It’s basically the final touches to liquidating independent journalism in Russia for good.”