Galina Arapova: “I’ll include the ‘foreign agent’ label. Let them choke on it”

9 October 2021

Galina Arapova in an interview by Liliya Yapparova for Meduza

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [ original source: Медуза,]

The head of the Mass Media Defence Centre (“foreign agent”), laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize Galina Arapova, was also declared a “foreign agent.” Meduza asked how it affects her life and work. 

On Friday evening, 8 October, the Russian Ministry of Justice  replenished its register of “Mass Media—foreign agents,” adding three organizations and nine individuals.  Mostly journalists working with the publication “Proekt,” that had been declared an “undesirable organization.” One of the new “Mass Media-individual foreign agents” was Galina Arapova, the director of the Centre for the Defence of Mass Media Rights, which had been previously included in the register of “foreign agents.”  Over the course of several years, Arapova has provided legal aid to the mass media, including to Meduza.  The Centre she heads prepared what was probably the fullest and most up-to-date list of  recommendations on “foreign agent” status, and Galina herself commented many times on news connected with the use of the law on “foreign agents.”  And now she has been declared one of them.  Meduza spoke with Arapova about how it affects her life and work. 

The Centre for the Defence of Mass Media Rights headed by you landed in the Ministry of Justice register in 2015 — did you expect to see yourself on the list of “foreign agents?” 

When such a bombardment is going on around you, as in recent months, it becomes obvious that they will come for you.  It is simply a question of time.  I think that they have some kind of long list of a thousand names, and they break off small pieces from it: today these ten people, in a week – the next portion.  And which of these portions you end up in is unknown: they don’t declare them in alphabetical order. That means there’s some other kind of order – perhaps as they get information from the appropriate services.

It was understood that they would include me (in the register) sooner or later.  And when I got the news, I was sitting at a table with the full staff of the Centre — we were having our usual planning meeting.  Suddenly journalists were calling: “You know, they put on you on the list of ‘foreign agents’…”  And there are a lot of people at our info meetings, it’s loud and difficult to hear, and I asked them to repeat it:  “What? What? What news do you have?  But, oh well, OK.”  And I went back to the planning meeting.  Not interrupting it because of the news: we have more important things to discuss.

Even my co-workers were not very surprised — they just included into their work plan another point: “Appeal the status of ‘foreign agent’ of this and this journalist — plus Galina Arapova.” 

Your organization provides legal support to all these journalists and media sources that the Justice Department keeps adding to the registry.

Yes, and every Friday we spend four hours with the latest additions to the list, discussing what they should do and how they can avoid fines or accusations of criminal offences. It’s like Groundhog Day! Just this past Monday I was talking to a new group — this has been my regime since the summer. But what can I do?

There’s a lot of work to be done: we’re the only organization that provides legal advice to journalists 24/7 regarding all legal matters related to their professional activities. We handle a lot of court cases. I don’t get the opportunity to relax and reflect or take Fridays for myself. But I don’t want to, because at this point I’m used to the tough work.

The part that makes the least sense is how we’ve all shifted into this strange parallel universe where, when a Russian journalist is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — which is amazing! — I get a call asking me to comment on the following: “Won’t the Nobel Prize be grounds for [Novaya Gazeta Editor in Chief Dmitri] Muratov to be declared a ‘foreign agent’?”

Will you dispute your own new status as a foreign agent?

We are helping journalists appeal against the ‘foreign agent’ designation, and of course I will appeal it myself. I’ll do this despite the ineffectiveness of the judicial system, despite the fact that the courts are doing the bidding of the Ministry of Justice, saluting them. This is all understood, but the work has to be done anyway: If you don’t dispute these claims, you’re agreeing with them. And I, of course, don’t agree! I believe myself to be one of the patriots — the real ones — who are doing something truly useful for this country and the people in it. I don’t embezzle state funds, I don’t hide money offshore, I have no real estate or accounts overseas.

To declare one’s own citizens as foreign agents is discrimination in the extreme. It’s totally surreal. This is a deeply discriminatory measure that contradicts a number of articles of the European Convention [on Human Rights]. A government exhibits weakness when it tries to protect itself from its own citizens like this.

Yes, I work as part of the Council of Europe, I teach at a Swedish institute, I work internationally and am periodically paid a fee for this expert work. And I’m proud of it! Twenty years ago, when someone would say they were an “international expert,” everyone would say, “That’s great!” But now it’s something disgraceful: if you talk about international cooperation, people want nothing to do with you. Everyone’s afraid.

It turns out that in the Russian expert community it has become dangerous to be an internationally recognised expert. When did this happen?

The role of ‘international expert’ has been strangely transformed in the last few years. Previously it was a sign of experience, professionalism and reputation, it was appreciated. Now it’s a confirmation of your questionability. International cooperation? Sedition!

I think that now in the Russian expert community the pro government experts are in higher demand. The quality of their expertise is often questionable but they say exactly what is expected to be heard from them. We see this in the discussions about legislative changes when the Public Chamber and the State Duma gather supposedly media experts. You are looking at these people and realise that you see them for the first time, despite working in this field almost since the adoption of the Law on mass media.

The paradox is that despite the Mass Media Defence Centre being declared a ‘foreign agent’ seven years ago, state media and – unofficially – the authorities and judiciary, are still consulting us. Now it’s all unofficial,  because they are afraid, the government is sending signals that they should be loyal. They are still calling and writing to us because they understand that here they will get high-quality expertise. 

How do your foreign colleagues perceive your ‘foreign agent’ status, so unusual for them?

They perceive it as nonsense and an additional risk in our work. Every time, they are ask as though they talking to a seriously ill person: How are you over there? Feeling good? Everything ok? How can we help? They realise that this can’t happen in a civilised society in principle, that this is against several articles of the European Convention. They are ready to support and help, but at the same time, are afraid to show too much support. They realise that assistance from abroad is another argument in favor of the government position: “Well, you see, they are still supported by foreign countries.”

Now you are a “foreign agent” who leads an NGO- “foreign agent”. Does this impose any new restrictions on you?

Legally nothing will change. My status won’t affect the work of the Centre. Anyway, amendments have already been made to the Law on non-profit organisations, which require me to put an appropriate label when drawing up any application to a government agency. Now it turns out I have to put up two labels, that I am leading an ‘foreign agent’ organisation and that I am a ‘foreign media agent’ myself. 

Does the Russian public paying attention to all these new labels? 

In everyday life, discrimination occurs when “foreign agents” communicate with officials, judges, and such. Formally, they are not forbidden from cooperating with us, but they are afraid, and they keep themselves at a distance.

Just yesterday a representative of a government agency came to us for advice on copyright issues. We were recommended to him as specialists. We agreed to provide him with legal assistance free of charge. All the same, he allowed himself to ask during conversation: “Who are you? What kind of funding do you have? ” Would it have occurred to someone else to ask at all “who finances you?” It is indecent to ask such questions to a specialist from whom you are seeking advice.

Banks have already refused to grant loans to “foreign agent” journalists; Alesya Marokhovskaya was expelled from the jury of the hackathon. And this is not required by law! They are all simply afraid what may happen if they are caught communicating with a “foreign agent”?

You are much more familiar than most of the “newcomers” on the Ministry of Justice’s register with the bureaucratic routine that the status of “foreign agent” necessitates. Have you already thought about how to start dealing with this?

There will be some added hassle associated with appeals. When I need to post on social media, I’ll include the ‘foreign agent’ label. Let them choke on it.  It won’t change my reputation. For seven years now I have been the head of an organization that was recognized as a “foreign agent.” Back in February 2015 (when designated a foreign agent) we felt a wild sense of injustice. Now these feelings have already dulled.

We will have to write stupid reports to the Ministry of Justice. Things like how many litres of gasoline you poured into your car and how much you spent in the supermarket. We will, of course, think about how to minimize the costs associated with the status, so that it does not greatly interfere with our work and life. After all,  taking away our time in a way that annoys us is one of their goals. They will not break everyone but a certain number of people will give up and go to work in another sphere so as to lose the status they have been designated with. Within a year they’ll forget about it, as if it was a bad dream, and continue living.

Everyone will choose their own destiny. I do not believe that this is a reason to give up and abandon one’s own beliefs.

Translators include: Nina dePalma, Ecaterina Hughes and Matthew Quigley

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