Is Russia’s Foreign Agent Law Destroying Russian Journalism?

Life as a journalist or within the media in Russia has historically been far from easy. With Putin’s highly centralised authoritarian regime, any formation of media outlets are strictly limited. Over 20 journalists are estimated to have been murdered since 2000 for reporting on events or topics that in any way cross the blurred line of what Putin’s government sees fit to be circulated. Within the past month, however, the government has chosen to elevate this media crackdown further. Some of Russia’s pre-eminent media outlets have now either been banned outright or have been pinned as ‘foreign agents’, detaching them from the country and coining them to the likes of being the ‘enemy’.

Restrictions and hostility towards journalists and the media can be traced back across the last ten years and beyond. The Russian government has been after the independent media for a while, with many independent journalists critical of the regime being eradicated by state owners. Journalists such as these had no choice but to find new jobs and try to continue their careers under ever tightening policing.

Vladimir Putin. (Credit: theglobalpanorama via Creative Commons.)

Recent hostility towards the media, however, has only continued from this, with a recent crackdown across the past year making lives for journalists even more of a struggle. Particularly significant is Russia’s law on foreign agents, of which was adopted in 2012 and has been frequently modified since , repeatedly broadening the scope of who should be defined as a foreign agent. It has been looming as an indefinite threat over Russian journalists since. When it was initially introduced in 2012, it was targeted at suppressing human rights work, or those involved in sharing details of civic information. However, this changed in 2017 when the legislation was amended to include the phrase ‘foreign agent media’, alongside creating a blacklist of foreign agents. It requires non-profit organisations that partake in ‘political activity’ to both register and declare themselves as foreign agents. Essentially, the Ministry of Justice assumes journalists are engaged with some form of political activity within their journalism, be it foreign intelligence or other. This means that every small action and move made under this law is closely monitored, even including spending. Roman Anin, a veteran investigative journalist and founder of a Russian media outlet expressed how “this is a law that basically bans the profession. It’s not a law about foreign agents, it’s a ban on independent journalism”.

The consequences of this law become most evident, however, when considered alongside its penalties of non-compliance, and these are what have amplified alongside changes made to the law this year. As of March 2021, journalists who fail to submit their reports to the Ministry of Justice can look to face five years imprisonment.

However, Russia’s authoritarian regime has not prevented media outlets from using their platforms to protest against these restrictions, and the recent crackdowns in particular. Over twelve independent media platforms have recently signed an open letter, demanding a demise to the designating of journalists and outlets as ‘foreign agents’. The letter read that the outlets are collectively “convinced that these events are part of a coordinated campaign to destroy independent Russian media”. Equally, Radio Liberty, one of the media outlets which has been faced with 520 violations and over $2 million in fines, has also argued against the crackdowns. The company appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in April this year, arguing that Russia’s actions violate freedom of speech highlighted in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Nothing, however, has come from this protest in terms of the law changing in any way.

Subsequently, it can be questioned what the future holds for Russia’s independent media. Despite urges fired at Putin to stop these crackdowns, the nature and reputation of his government does not make the ceasing of these measures likely. Only time will tell if freedom of press and speech will ever truly be allowed for journalists in Russia.

Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer

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