CSO of the Week: Meduza

Week-ending 7 May 2021

This week, following Meduza’s designation as a ‘foreign agent’ at the end of April, the media outlet has been in crisis as it has lost advertising revenue. Reporters Without Borders said the designation was ‘a serious violation of media pluralism’ and urged the repeal of draconian ‘foreign agent’ laws. Hundreds of journalists around the world have called on Russia to end its persecution of independent media. Meduza is an online news outlet based in Riga whose primary audience is in the Russian Federation. It was set up in 2014 by  Galina Timchenko, formerly editor-in-chief of the Russian news website Lenta.ru.


RSF, 5 May 2021: Haemorrhaging advertisers even since the Russian justice ministry listed it as a “foreign agent,” the news website Meduza has been forced to close bureaux and slash salaries in the past week. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the listing as a serious violation of media pluralism and urges Russia to repeal its draconian “foreign agents” law. “The authorities’ goal is to kill Meduza,” said Ivan Kolpakov, the editor of what is Russia’s most popular independent news website. Founded in Riga, the capital of neighbouring Latvia, in 2014, Meduza has been reeling ever since the Russian justice ministry added it to its list of “foreign agents” on 23 April. It plans to challenge the decision in the courts.

RFE/RL, 5 May 2021: The media-freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the Russian government’s “draconian and defamatory” decision to list the Meduza website as a “foreign agent” may force one of the country’s most popular independent news sites to shut down. The listing is “a massive blow to media pluralism in Russia,” the Paris-based RSF said in a May 5 statement. “We call on the Russian Justice Ministry to abolish this draconian and defamatory register of ‘foreign agent’ media, which exists solely to enable the government to tighten its grip on the press,” said Jeanne Cavelier, RSF’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The Moscow Times, 3 May 2021: Hundreds of journalists from scores of countries have called on Russia to end its persecution of independent media, according to an open letter published on the Russian student-run news outlet DOXA’s website Monday. The World Press Freedom Day statement came a month after authorities filed a criminal case against DOXA’s editorial team for allegedly “inciting minors to participate in illegal activities.” Also in April, security agents raided the home of Roman Anin, editor-in-chief of the iStories (Important Stories) investigative outlet, and labeled one of Russia’s most-read news sites, Meduza, a “foreign agent.”

Meduza, 6 May 2021: In Russia, you don’t have to be a legal entity to be designated as a “foreign agent” — all you need is a pulse. Last December, for the first time, the Justice Ministry added a handful of individuals to its registry. The authorities named five journalists and activists. The designations imposed the same public accounting requirements on these people that burden Meduza, which was named a “foreign agent” in late April 2020. In other words, they’re now forced to mark anything they write or share online (or in the mass media) with a loud, inescapable notification that they have “foreign agent” status in Russia. The law also demands that these individuals create formal legal entities, in order to report their earnings and spending to the government. Russia’s regulations do not stipulate, however, that each “foreign agent” needs a separate legal entity, and so three “agents” on the Justice Ministry’s list actually created a joint LLC. To learn more about how this status changes ordinary life, Meduza spoke to journalists and “foreign agents” Denis Kamalyagin, Sergey Markelov, and Lyudmila Savitskaya.

In other news:

RFE/RL, 5 May 2021: Russia has filed protocols against Facebook and Google for what Roskomnadzor, the country’s communications regulator, says is the social-media networks’ failure to remove banned content. The official TASS news agency on May 5 quoted a court source as saying five protocols against both Google and Facebook were received by the court, with potential fines amounting to 200 million rubles ($267,000) each. Another social-media giant, Twitter, has already been handed protocols for similar violations, which could see it fined as much as $320,000, the source added.

The Guardian, 5 May 2021: In 1991, Boris Yeltsin gave Radio Liberty, the US government-funded broadcaster that had fought for decades to bypass Soviet jamming equipment, permission to open its own Moscow bureau. Now, 30 years later, the Kremlin looks close to shutting it down. A deadline for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to pay the first of an estimated $2.4m (£1.7m) in fines will pass for the foreign broadcaster next week, threatening its bureau in Russia with potential police raids, blocked bank accounts, or the arrest of senior employees. RFE/RL says it will not pay the fines, which have accrued for its refusal to brand all its digital and video content as the product of a “foreign agent”. Roskomnadzor, the Russian mass media regulator, has initiated 520 cases against the broadcaster so far, and that number appears likely to grow.

CPJ, 6 May 2021: Telegram was meant to be blocked in Russia in April 2020 when Aleksandr Pichugin published a satirical article about the spread of COVID-19 on his channel Sorokin Khvost – an allusion to a Russian version of the saying, “A little bird told me.” Four days later, uniformed officers came to the journalist’s home and pushed him to the floor in front of his pregnant wife, he recalled in a conversation with CPJ in early 2021. He was detained overnight, as documented by CPJ, and later fined 300,000 rubles (US$3,966) for spreading “fake news”; his appeal was rejected in January 2021. Telegram resisted Russia’s attempts to censor it, which CPJ and other observers condemned at the time. The platform remained popular among independent journalists until Roskomnadzor, the media and telecommunications regulator, finally lifted its 26-month ban in June 2020, according to news reports and CPJ interviews.

RFE/RL, 7 May 2021:  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has called on Russia to stop “targeting” journalists after one of its contributors lost an appeal against her inclusion on Russia’s controversial registry of “foreign agent” media. The City Court in the western Russian city of Pskov on May 5 said the inclusion of RFE/RL contributor Lyudmila Savitskaya on the Justice Ministry’s list was lawful. “Lyudmila is not a ‘foreign agent’ — she, and RFE/RL journalists Denis Kamalyagin and Sergei Markelov, are Russian nationals providing objective news and information to their fellow citizens. We call on the Russian government to stop targeting journalists and blocking the Russian people’s access to information,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement late on May 6.

RFE/RL, 4 May 2021: A Russian court has dismissed a case against an RFE/RL correspondent who was charged with the distribution of “false information about the coronavirus” over an article she wrote about a lack of ventilators for COVID-19 patients. The lawyer for Tatyana Voltskaya, Leonid Krikun, told RFE/RL that the Gatchino City Court in the northwestern Leningrad region ruled on May 4 that there was no crime committed by the reporter. Investigators initially demanded a criminal case be launched against Voltskaya regarding her article published on RFE/RL’s North.Realities website in April 2020. In the story, Voltskaya reported on a lack of ventilation units at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients in the city of St. Petersburg, citing an unnamed physician. After a local court refused to launch a criminal case, Russia’s Investigative Committee requested an administrative case against Voltskaya that could have seen her fined or spend several days in jail as punishment.

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