Putin’s crackdown: how Russia’s journalists became ‘foreign agents’

Usually the bad news is dumped late on Friday when most Muscovites are heading out for the evening: a new list of names of journalists and outlets declared “foreign agents”, a label that for some Russians evokes such Soviet-era terms as “enemy of the people” and has sent a chill through newsrooms under threat.

“We are being told that we are the enemy,” said Tikhon Dzyadko, the editor of Dozhd, Russia’s main independent television station and a recent addition to the list. “And I am not an enemy and I am not an agent. It’s a spit in the face.”

Vir meer as 'n dekade, the Kremlin has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s independent media. Outlets with independent journalists were periodically purged by their businessmen or state owners. Those journalists found new jobs, then founded new media, and sought other means to protect their work, sources and livelihood from the threat of a new government crackdown.

But in the past year, since the protests in neighbouring Belarus, the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, en Vladimir Putin’s “resetting” of his presidential terms, the Kremlin is taking broader steps to bring the media and individual journalists to heel. Some think it’s possible to keep on reporting, but others see it as a death knell for the profession of journalism.

“This is a law that basically bans the profession. It’s not a law about foreign agents, it’s a ban on independent journalism,” said Roman Anin, a veteran investigative journalist and founder of the iStories media outlet recently added to the list. Targeted with raids and a criminal case, he is now working from elsewhere in Europe and is “not sure when I can come back”.

“I think returning when I can be imprisoned, and that is possible, is pretty stupid," hy het gesê.

Passed in 2017, Russia’s law on foreign agents has been a looming, if somewhat undefined, threat. At the moment, it requires outlets and even individual journalists to provide detailed financial reports and to affix an all-caps warning to their content: “THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND (OR) DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MEDIA OUTLET, PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT, AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY, PERFORMING THE FUNCTION OF A FOREIGN AGENT.” The text must be posted on everything – articles, videos, Instagram stories, even on Twitter jokes that have nothing to do with politics.

But the concern is that it could also be used to bankrupt or block those outlets from writing on certain topics, such as elections or court cases, and eventually silence the independent press en masse.

At the moment, 47 outlets, journalists and activists have been added to the register, insluitend Meduza, Dozhd, investigative outlets iStories and the Insider, the US Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and its affiliates, and the veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, co-founder of the Memorial human rights organisation.

Russian officials have compared it to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act but the Russian version is far more aggressive, targeting news agencies that have little or no connection to foreign governments and requiring them to comply with onerous labelling requirements on all their content or face stiff fines and potential criminal liability.

“There are already so many decent people and publications on the list that it would be simply indecent not to be there,” iStories said in a statement when it was added.

What has been less clear is what exactly it means to become a foreign agent. Enter Sonya Groysman, a 27-year-old reporter from Novosibirsk who recently became one of about 10 journalists to be declared a “foreign agent”.

She found out she had been labelled as such while watching a storm gather on a beach in Sochi, where she was on holiday after Proekt, the online outlet where she worked, had been declared an “undesirable organisation”. When she got the news, sy het gese, she “sobbed all across the beach”.

Since then she and a former colleague, Olga Churakova, have created a podcast called "Hi, you’re a foreign agent,” investigating what their new status means for their lives. The two-hander often features them talking about their new status with family members and colleagues, asking a bewildered manager whether they can work at a fast-food outlet as a “foreign agent”, and discussing whether you can even take money out of an ATM or borrow it from friends without falling foul of financial reporting rules.

Besides serving as a kind of “public therapy”, their podcast has also helped to keep them in journalism, showing “all the absurdities” of the new rules and demystifying a label that has filled many independent journalists (as well as NGOs and other civic organisations) with dread.

“It has really, really helped," sy het gese. “Professionally too. It would be one case if we just sat around unemployed with this label, trying to think how we should live and everyone just felt bad for us. And here we truly feel that despite everything we are doing something, that you’re needed … If this is how we can be part of public life, stay in the profession, then it’s great.”

The laws are seen as a response to investigative reporting on the Kremlin, but they threaten an entire creative ecosystem of reporting in Russia. Groysman’s work is eclectic and sensitive – a favourite video piece followed schoolchildren from Vzvad, a village 370 miles from Moscow, travelling to the capital for the first time to stage a play about a trip on a marshrutka, or public taxi.

Another podcast of hers that I listened to as I covered the coronavirus outbreak last year followed the lives of frontline doctors in Covid hospitals.

She has documented the bizarre world of government employees who obsessively curate their agencies’ Wikipedia entries and spoken with the family of Ivan Safronov, a former journalist jailed more than a year ago on treason charges. That piece came out just as her own colleagues at Proekt were being targeted with raids, a coincidence that she said “says everything you need to know about journalism in Russia now”.

Their new role has thrust the young women and their colleagues into the uncomfortable role of activists (Groysman was arrested at a picket in support of journalists last month). Juggling interviews and recording the podcast, sy sê, it feels like “our new job is to be foreign agents”.

It entails enough work to be a job. The formal requirements, such as attaching disclaimers to all of your social media content and filing quarterly reports, are matched by the social impact of being declared a public enemy.

“You start to live much more carefully. You start to filter what you say publicly and what you write online because I know that there are a bunch of informers following my social media and waiting for when I make a mistake," sy het gese.

This may be the endgame of the Putin’s long effort to tame the Russian media. That campaign began in 2000, the year Putin became president and quickly moved to take control of the critical television channel NTV, briefly jailing its businessman owner Vladimir Gusinsky before it was sold to a state-owned company. A political puppet show called Kukly that had routinely roasted Putin soon disappeared from the air.

But some say Putin’s disdain for journalists goes back to the 1990s, when he saw the power of the press sink his mentor Anatoly Sobchak’s mayoral campaign in St Petersburg in 1996 and artificially boost his own popularity before his first presidential campaign in 2000.

“He honestly thinks that I and any other independent journalist is corrupt,” said Anin, a former investigative journalist at Novaya Gazeta. “Because he’s been dealing with those kinds of journalists for his entire life.”

The 2000s also saw purchases of prestige newspapers such as business daily Kommersant by a Kremlin-friendly magnate and the abrupt closure of a tabloid, Moskovsky Korrespondent, after it reported that Putin had secretly divorced his wife to wed a 24-year-old rhythmic gymnast. “I have always reacted negatively to those who with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies prowl into others’ lives,” he told journalists in Sardinia, denying the story.

But the decade was also marked by high-profile attacks on journalists, including the murder of five of Novaya Gazeta’s reporters and contributors. The European court of human rights last month ruled that Russia had failed to investigate the abduction and assassination of one of them, Natalya Estemirova, in Chechnya in 2009. Another, Anna Politkovskaya, was gunned down as she got into her lift in 2006.

“There were moments of extreme tension,” said Anin, when I asked him how the current mood compared to the crises of those years. “But never this feeling that the changes that were taking place were so permanent.”

Deur 2011, when I began reporting from Russia, there were closures of media outlets but also a sense of solidarity in the press, particularly in print and internet media where a certain degree of independence was permitted. As anti-Putin protests grew in Moscow in late 2011, state media were being pressured into covering the demonstrations and some print media openly backed the protests. Bolshoi Gorod, a magazine mostly devoted to urban affairs, carried provocative covers such as: “There are more of us than it seems”, and “Demand they both resign”, meaning Putin and then-president Dmitri Medvedev.

“I think there have been a lot of missed chances,” said Dzyadko when I asked him about the creeping censorship of the ensuing decade. The law about journalist foreign agents was adopted in 2017, he notes, but has only now been recognised as an urgent issue.

“We calmly and relaxedly accepted the change of the overall picture. Now in 2021 imagining that kind of cover on a magazine is just not possible. Ons, Russian society, all bear some responsibility for that.”

We speak in a transparent, cube-like studio in the middle of Dozhd’s open-plan newsroom, where work is continuing as Dzyadko says the television station is well insulated against a potential loss of advertisers. In front of us, young journalists in their 20s and 30s gather to discuss the day’s plans.

Dzyadko projects calm, although some of the reporters I talk to are jittery about what comes next. “We’re being divided into good and bad journalists,” says one, as we grab a bite from a nearby food truck. “Everyone is worried.”

Dzyadko said that the government could seek to shut down “foreign agents” such as Dozhd or simply use the new designation as a leash. But it doesn’t appear, voeg hy by, that there is a concrete plan. “There is no logic,” Dzyadko says, throwing up his hands.

Ek have been reporting on Dozhd’s potential demise since at least 2014, when it briefly ran a poll asking whether or not the Soviet Union should have surrendered Leningrad to the Nazis to prevent deaths during a 900-day siege. That quickly led to investigations by the Federal Communications Agency and by local prosecutors. All of Russia’s major cable operators severed their ties with Dozhd. “If the situation does not change, we will cease to be a television station,” Alexander Vinokurov, the station’s owner, told me at the time.

While Dozhd survived that crisis, partially by moving to a subscription model, Russia’s other early internet media were decimated. Top news site Gazeta.ru saw much of its politics desk restaffed over a political tiff and nearly the entire Lenta.ru newsroom quit in protest after its chief editor, Galina Timchenko, was fired in 2014 (its then owner, Alexander Mamut, declined to discuss the incident with me in a recent interview).

Groysman recalled covering Lenta’s destruction as a cub reporter working at the New Times. Deur 2015, sy het gese, most of the media she had devoured as a high-school student was gone. “The authorities had destroyed them in front of our eyes, one after another,” she wrote last month.

Some Russian media responded by moving abroad. Meduza, a successor to Lenta that has become one of Russia’s most popular independent news websites, is now headquartered in Riga, Latvia, in part to insulate itself from the dangers of being based in Moscow.

Nie verbasend nie, it was one of the first major news outlets to be declared a foreign agent in April.

Meduza, which is mainly reliant on advertising revenues, has described the foreign agent label as a weapon to destroy its business. It has survived through a fundraising drive that has attracted meer as 90,000 donors who wanted to become a “summer agent”.

“Our main goal is to survive, even if the pressure continues or intensifies,” said Ivan Kolpakov, the editor-in-chief, in remarks published by Meduza. “In any case, we have to proceed from the fact that it will be worse going forward … Over the past 10 jare, not a single optimistic forecast about the sociopolitical situation in Russia has come true. Right now there’s no more reason to think otherwise.”

This latest crackdown comes as aggressive investigative sites had become reinvigorated. The Insider, partnering with Bellingcat, had helped to show that Russian agents were behind the poison attack on Alexei Navalny, the Putin critic whose own investigative team has sparked protests by revealing the hidden wealth of top officials such as Putin and Medvedev.

Proekt and iStories, where Anin is editor-in-chief, had also run piercing investigations on Putin’s top allies, as well as members of his family. Proekt, which was liquidated by the Russian government, had alleged that Putin had a daughter with a secret girlfriend, and iStories alleged that his former son-in-law was given shares worth a fortune as a wedding gift.

The decentralised model of journalism was a crisis of the Kremlin’s own making, the latest innovation by journalists who had become tired of being deplatformed. Some of Russia’s top reporters had created media that couldn’t be bought out and did not have newsrooms to raid.

“We were registered abroad because we were forced to, because all these media had faced censorship and we don’t want to be censored journalists,” said Anin. “The government left us no other choice.”

Meanwhile, the scoops have become more explosive, revealing not only official corruption but also the inside workings of the spy and security services. Partly that came from investigators and some journalists using information, such as passport and mobile phone data, that was available on the black market.

And partly, says Anin, that was because the actions of the Kremlin have grown more outrageous, culminating in the attempted murder of Navalny.

“This wasn’t spontaneous,” said Anin. “This was a result of the actions of the Russian government.”

Nobody knows for certain what comes next and even Russian colleagues who work for western media such as the BBC (which had a top reporter, Sarah Rainsford, expelled from the country last month) have grown concerned that they may be targeted next.

Dzyadko, the Dozhd editor, previously lived in the US. But he shakes his head when I ask if he is planning to leave. He also rejects the idea that the “profession” has been banned.

“It is very strong political pressure on freedom of speech, the repression of journalism and civil society," hy het gesê. “But banning the profession, that’s when you’re jailed, shot, the internet is cut off.

“For now …” he added, trailing off as if to say: “We’re not there just yet.”

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