1 October 2021
by Leonid Nikitinsky, Novaya Gazeta correspondent, member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society (SPCh), laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for Human Rights
On 29 September, the Justice Ministry deemed 21 people “journalist-foreign agents,” of whom only Sergei Smirnov and Petr Verzilov, editor-in-chief and publisher of Mediazona, respectively, could be considered “journalists,” the remaining 19 being coordinators from the election oversight movement Golos. There are a total of 47 of these “agent-physicists” on the Justice Ministry register—and this is just one branch being created on the basis of “engagement in political activity.”
A second branch, which, in principle, should stem from the same Article 2.1 introduced into the “Dima Yakovlev law” of 30 December of last year, might be created on the basis of “purposeful collection of information in the sphere of military and military-technical activities,” a list of which was published by the Russian FSB on 1 October in accordance with that law.
At the stage of discussion of the draft of this document on an open-access portal, experts in the sphere of this very same military and military-technical activity pointed out that it encompasses “approximately everything” that has not yet been classified as a state secret. This criticism had no influence on the document’s approval, and although the publication, for example, of information about irregular relations in the army, is not forbidden, its “collection” now threatens journalists with “foreign agent” status—if at the same time they receive (or have received) any assistance from abroad.
Sorting out this criterion is even more difficult since Article 2.1 itself is expressed in almost encoded form. Here is its text, simplified by the deletion of the parts that refer to the “political activity” branch:
“A physical person . . . may be deemed a physical person acting as a foreign agent in the event that this person engages on the territory of the Russian Federation in the interests of a foreign state, its state agencies, an international or foreign organization, foreign citizens, or persons without citizenship (hencefoth, “foreign source”) . . . in the purposeful collection of information in the sphere of the military or military-technical activity of the Russian Federation that upon its receipt by the foreign source could be used against the security of the Russian Federation . . . in connection with the exertion of influence on him by a foreign source or citizens of the Russian Federation or Russian organizations acting in the interests of a foreign source, exertion that is expressed in support for the indicated types of activity (including the offer of monetary funds or other material or organizational-methodical assistance).”
Anyone with ears to hear will hear this: “. . . in its (the foreign source’s) interests” and “in connection with influence exerted on him (that is, on the journalist).” After this, juridically, the question must be raised as to the burden of proof:
- who has to prove that organizers of a conference abroad in which the given journalist took part three years ago and ate something at dinner “were exerting influence on him”?
- Or are “the interest of a foreign source” and “influence” presumed?
- And, in the latter case, how and where can a candidate for “agent” refute it?
The answer is given by the burgeoning practice of recognizing “foreign agents” on the basis of political activity. The status of “agent,” which in fact entails an infringement of the journalist’s right, is conferred in an extrajudicial procedure, and no one as yet has succeeded in disputing it. So far the suits by Open Media journalists Maksim Glikin* and Yuli Yarosh* have been transferred from district courts to the Moscow Municipal Court on the grounds that the Justice Ministry considers even the fact of their receipt of “foreign financing” to be a “state secret.”
The criterion of “political activity” has been formulated in the December Article 2.1 of the “Dima Yakovlev law” and in Justice Ministry practice so broadly that there is no special need to create yet another category of “agent” – the “list of information” just published by the FSB will play an almost preventive role, so that no one sticks their nose “into the sphere of military and military-technical activities,” especially with respect to expenditures for it from the state budget.
*Included by the Russian Federation Justice Ministry in the register of media-foreign agents.
Translated by Marian Schwartz