Life as a ‘foreign agent’: Inside Russia’s crackdown on free speech

MOSCOW — Russia is in the midst of the largest crackdown on the free press and political dissent since the Soviet era

The trends driving it are numerous, and have been in place for years. But the past 18 months have seen an extraordinary increase in pressure applied on independent journalism by the state.

Instead of overt brutality, this latest campaign is being waged quietly with a vague legal tool: a law regulating the activities of so-called foreign agents.

Its first use against a media outlet came in 2017, when several U.S.-government funded outlets like Voice of America were declared foreign agents. But, last year, the state began to deploy it against independent Russian journalists.

“It is not about receiving money from abroad,” said Sonya Groisman, 27, a reporter who was added to the foreign agent list after her outlet, Proekt, was disbanded after being labeled “undesirable.” 

“It is a law to silence all independent voices,” she said.

The first targets in this assault on independent, critical journalism in Russia were legal entities — i.e., entire newsrooms. But recently, the state has taken to applying the label to individual journalists, too. Groisman was one of those. And the list is public, often serving as the initial notification that affected parties receive from the authorities informing them of their new reality.

The challenges faced by Russian journalists were recognized by the Norwegian Nobel Committee on Oct. 8, with Dmitry Muratov — an editor at independent news outlet Novaya Gazeta — jointly awarded this year’s peace prize for his “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression” in the country. 

Muratov dedicated the award to his “deceased colleagues,” a direct reference to the price independent journalists in Russia have paid over the years for doing their work. Novaya Gazeta, in particular, has taken a heavy toll. Muratov received the award one day after the 15th anniversary of the murder of their most famous reporter, Anna Politkovskaya. 

The Kremlin press office told NBC News that those who are labeled foreign agents are not actually legally limited from working as journalists by law, and they have the right to appeal the designation in court.

The Kremlin’s moves against domestic dissent have sparked fears of a return to the Communist era’s approach to free speech.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The foreign agent law was signed in 2012. Before its first use against the media in 2017, the state used it against NGOs and civil society groups — often those with focuses on human rights — that had received foreign grant money.

“I don’t think there has ever been a worse time for Russian civic society and media in general,” Alexey Kovalev, an editor at independent news site Meduza said. “And I think we have not even hit rock bottom yet, because this machine doesn’t really have a reverse gear. It is actually getting worse.”

The way it works is simple: every Friday, the Ministry of Justice updates a public list of “foreign agents” published on its website. There are around 90 organizations and individuals on the list now. The size of the list has nearly doubled over the past month, with almost every major independent outlet now featured. 

“The authorities have become smart and sophisticated,” Gulnoza Said, director for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said. “They don’t use the targeted killings of journalists as 20 years ago. They use legislation to legitimize the crackdown.”

By labelling a journalist or media outlet a foreign agent, the state is thrusting upon them two significant legal burdens: The first is a disclaimer, prescribed by law, that must accompany everything they post online; the second is a quarterly report on all of their financial activities. Any misstep on either could lead to criminal prosecution and/or fines. 

“It is not the Russian state that drives you out of business, you have to kill your own business yourself,” Kovalev said. “You have to hire a lawyer to deal with the paperwork, an accountant to deal with the financial filings. And now, when you have individual people declared foreign agents, you see how devastating this actually is.”

President Vladimir Putin addressed the law at a forum in Moscow on Wednesday, defending the foreign agent list as a routine act of bureaucracy, akin to the Foreign Agent Registration Act in the United States. That law obliges think-tanks, lobbyists, and foreign state-funded media outlets to report financial ties to foreign governments, but is less aggressive than the Russian law.

“This law was adopted in the United States in the 1930s, and it is still in use today, applied to Russian media outlets, among other things,” Putin said. “Both there and in our country this is done with one purpose: to protect internal political processes from outside influence. Foreign agents are not prohibited from political or any professional activities, they just have to register.”

Moscow has long sought to deflect accusations of suppressing dissent by suggesting it is no different to the United States.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The CPJ’s Said said that when the U.S. used its FARA law against Russian state-funded outlets Russia Today and Sputnik in 2017, the organization warned against it, arguing the Russian government would engage in a tit-for-tat response from Russian authorities. That is what happened to Voice of America in Russia, he said.

The CPJ also warned that Russia would take it one step further and use their version of FARA against independent media outlets. That, too, is what happened, he said.

Russian journalists hit with the label at home point out that  there is no trial, and no burden on the state to provide evidence that an organization or individual added to the foreign agent register ever received any money from abroad. 

For those who find themselves on the list, it feels permanent. 

“The only cases in which someone was able to get off the list are organizations that destroyed themselves, but I cannot destroy myself,” Groisman said. “So there are only two options: the first option is that some officials ask the Ministry of Justice to remove you from the list.”

“The second option is my death,” she said. “Maybe that is more realistic.”

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