Campaign to brand Russian journalists and media ‘foreign agents’ picks up pace after elections

Sonia Groisman, a journalist who has been declared a "foreign agent", protests outside the FSB headquarters in Moscow. Image by Avtozak Live on Telegram CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Sonia Groisman, a journalist who has been declared a “foreign agent”, protests outside the FSB headquarters in Moscow. Image by Avtozak Live on Telegram CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

This article by ODR Editors appeared on Open Democracy on September 30, 2021. It is republished as part of a content-sharing partnership and has been edited to fit the GV style.


The message above is what journalists at independent outlets Mediazona and OVD-Info now have to place on their websites and social media feeds whenever they publish an article.

Mediazona has reported on hundreds of cases of police torture and brutality, falsified drug and political charges, and the systemic violence inside the country’s prison system. OVD-Info is a human rights media project that covers every political arrest and prosecution – there are now dozens across Russia on a weekly basis – and provides legal support to people detained at protests or just outside their homes. In the past few years, openDemocracy has translated and published dozens of articles by both outlets to highlight their importance.

On September 29, these outlets, as well as Mediazona’s publisher and chief editor, Sergey Smirnov, were declared ‘foreign agents’ by the Russian Ministry of Justice. Staff working for Golos, the election monitor, were also put on the ‘foreign agent’ list.

They are not the first.

The effects of Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ legislation against media and civil society have been direct and deeply troubling. In effect, the ‘foreign agent’ label marks a media outlet as undesirable to sources, advertisers, supporters and readers. They are, in effect, deemed ‘enemies of the people’, to use the Soviet term. This makes the day-to-day work of journalists incredibly difficult.

Meduza, an independent organisation specialising in hard-hitting investigations and feature writing, was in May added to the ‘foreign agent’ list, and has since reported the loss of advertising revenue, which in turn has meant the loss of high-quality journalists. VTimes, which came from the ashes of high-quality business daily Vedomosti, decided to close down completely that same month after also being added to the list.

These are just two examples. The Ministry of Justice has now declared more than 20 media outlets and dozens of individuals ‘foreign agents’, and it is clearly not slowing down. While there were hopes that the targeting of independent media in the summer would ease off after the parliamentary elections this month, it seems clear that the Russian authorities are intent on clearing the field of independent media.

This means the urgent issues that concern Russian citizens – law and justice, socio-economic rights, democracy, and most recently, military activity – are not to be reported on with detail, care and independence. Instead, attempts to do so independently are to be shut down and isolated under the rubric of ‘foreign influence’ – of which there is no evidence. When outlets ask for the evidence of their ‘foreign funding’, Russian prosecutors refuse to release it.

Ironically, as Sergey Smirnov, chief editor of Mediazona, pointed out after the decision, it’s the officials of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and their elite supporters who are the ones with property, cash and assets in the West – yet it’s the media and civil society people who continue working in Russia who are ‘foreign agents’.

It has not been possible for everyone to continue working. On September 30, it was reported that Russian security services had raided the home of Roman Dobrokhotov, chief editor of The Insider, an outlet pivotal in the investigations into the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and other public figures. As it turned out, Dobrokhotov had apparently left Russia in August. Others, like journalist Ivan Safronov, have been imprisoned for months while facing treason charges.

Russian journalists have sought to consolidate their protests and efforts in response to these constant and unpredictable threats, including pickets against the use of ‘foreign agent’ legislation and a new petition calling on the authorities to revoke it – and readers to financially support these outlets in any way they can. One hundred and fifty thousand people have already signed the petition.

Tweet by journalist Katya Arenina with screenshots of multiple Russian and international media websites with the campaign slogan “There Are No Foreign Agents, There Are Journalists.”

Media workers have been asking their supporters inside and outside the country to help spread information about the situation facing Russian colleagues. Earlier in September, independent Russian media outlets launched a online solidarity campaign opposing the country’s law on “foreign agents,” under the slogan “There Are No Foreign Agents, There Are Journalists.”

Following news of their designation, the Mediazona team said in a statement on their website:

Сегодня государство хочет, чтобы независимые журналисты исчезли. Мы — хотим делать нашу работу и честно рассказывать о России.

Если этого же хотят наши читатели, то вместе у нас все получится.

Today the state wants independent journalists to disappear. We want to do our job and tell honest stories about Russia.

If our readers want the same thing, together we should be able to make it work.

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