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24th Feb 2024

Opinion

What happens when your media organisation is 'undesirable' in Russia

  • (Photo: Novaya Gazeta Europe)
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Last week, the Russian General Prosecutor's Office declared our publication Novaya Gazeta Europe an "undesirable organisation".

The 'undesirable' designation means that individuals holding Russian passports could face administrative or criminal penalties for any form of cooperation with us, including writing texts, attending meetings, sending donations and sharing our journalism on social media.

Exile or prison

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Last March, journalists from Novaya Gazeta, who had been working under the leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov for 30 years, made the decision to leave Russia and establish a new media outlet called Novaya Gazeta Europe. Our purpose is to continue reporting the truth about Russia's war in Ukraine and its aftermath, free from the constraints of strict military censorship.

Upon our departure, we were fully aware that the risks involved included the possibility of being imprisoned in Russia for disseminating alleged 'fake news' about the war, as well as the potential criminalisation of our activities through the "undesirable" designation of our organisation. Nevertheless, we accepted these risks as part of our deliberate choice.

In Russia, any media outlet that investigates corruption, exposes Vladimir Putin's connections to his inner circle, and now reveals war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine, has either already faced or will face the "undesirable" label from the Russian authorities.

Despite the severe consequences, being designated as an 'undesirable organisation' could be seen as a mark of quality, an unofficial recognition by the Kremlin of media outlets that significantly challenge and annoy it.

However, it was impossible to find anyone in the newsroom last week who was pleased with the news from the Prosecutor General's office. For most journalists, continuing to work with Novaya Gazeta Europa means being unable to enter Russia and visit their relatives, among other things.

It's only a matter of time before one of us is placed on the wanted list, which will restrict our ability to see our families or friends during their visits to countries like Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and others.

Also, any form of advertising or public support originating from Russia could lead to criminal charges against the individuals accused of 'funding' the activities of an undesirable organisation.

Nevertheless, this new status will not impede our efforts. The Novaya-Europa will persist in delivering truthful reporting about the war, with the hope that it will greatly perturb Vladimir Putin.

Reflecting Putin's mindset

When comparing the devastation caused by the Russian army in Ukrainian cities to the erosion of freedom of speech in Russia, it is evident that the Kremlin does not consider the latter as its greatest concern. However, both outcomes stem from the worldview of a single individual, Vladimir Putin.

In a series of videos released in 2020 to commemorate Putin's 20-year tenure, he attempted to provide simplistic answers to fundamental political questions for the Russian public. One such question pertained to Putin's stance on the media. According to him, the most important attribute of any media outlet is 'responsibility,' and those that lack this quality are deemed as "a gang serving private interests."

These comments, including his stance on independent media, shed light on Putin's overall perspective. He believes that the actions of individuals or organisations can be solely explained by the private interests of certain individuals, often the financiers behind these activities. Putin does not subscribe to the notion that individuals, political entities, and especially the media can be driven by public interests.

The Russian apparatus of repression operates in strict alignment with Putin's viewpoint.

Agents of foreign influence

Since 2017, the Ministry of Justice in Russia has been granted the authority to designate any media outlet as a 'foreign agent.' Prior to the war in Ukraine, such recognition could be triggered if authorities discovered even $1 in a media outlet's account originating from a non-Russian organisation or citizen. To these authorities, the presence of this dollar automatically implies that the media outlet is acting in the interests of the country or organisation from which the funds were received.

The 'foreign agent' label effectively eliminates all advertising contracts for the designated media outlet. Any Russian organisation that advertises with such a foreign agent becomes subject to intense scrutiny by intelligence services. When major Russian media outlets Meduza and TVRain were designated as foreign agents in 2021, both had to make significant cost reductions and alter their business models.

Following the onset of Russia's war in Ukraine, pressure on independent journalism within Russia has drastically intensified. Over 1,000 journalists have left the country due to restrictive military censorship laws. The registry of foreign agents, which now encompasses individuals, media outlets, and other organisations, has grown by 300 entries since the war's initiation. All media outlets on this list are blocked in Russia and can only be accessed through the use of a virtual private network (VPN).

Undesirable Democrats

Blocking and designating media outlets as foreign agents is just the initial step in the Russian government's campaign against the media. For organisations deemed most threatening to the Kremlin, the Prosecutor General's Office has introduced the status of 'undesirable.'

The law concerning undesirable organisations in Russia was established in 2015 and initially encompassed foreign foundations that funded projects supporting democracy, fair elections, and transparency within the country. Russia perceives such activities as a threat to "national security and the constitutional order."

This new regulation is a continuation of institutionalising Vladimir Putin's worldview and the influence of security services within Russian law. The concepts of 'Western democracy' and values of openness are considered undesirable in Russia, which promotes its own form of 'sovereign' democracy and emphasises that the relationship between government and society is supposedly based not on accountability but on paternal care.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, the register contained only 52 organisations. The subsequent additions to the list demonstrate the growing fervour of Russian authorities.

Initially, the list was methodically expanded with organisations from the United States and the United Kingdom. Starting in 2019, organisations from the European Union began to be regularly included. In 2021, three German organisations were simultaneously added, suggesting that the Kremlin held hopes for 'special' German-Russian relations for a considerable time.

In the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine, the first media outlets were included in the register. These outlets, such as Proekt.media and Istories, were investigative projects established by Russian individuals who were already compelled to work from abroad due to the threat of criminal prosecution. Their inclusion in the register was likely a retaliatory measure for their extensive investigative journalism exposing Vladimir Putin and his close associates.

Over the course of a year and a half of war, the register has nearly doubled in size, with the primary criterion for inclusion appearing to be the extent to which a recognized 'undesirable' organisation vocally expresses its anti-war stance.

A noteworthy development occurred when even the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) was designated as an undesirable organisation, just a week prior to Novaya Gazeta Europe being added to the register. This move suggests that green projects now pose a perceived threat to Russia's national security, likely due to their criticism of the war and its ecological impact.

Not every national threat

The news of Novaya Gazeta Evropa being designated as an undesirable organisation caught me off guard while I was waiting in line at the LEX building in Brussels to obtain my accreditation badge for the June EU summit.

The accreditation officer was surprised when he saw my Russian passport. After a moment of hesitation and consulting with other staff members, he handed me the badge, remarking that the last time he had encountered a Russian passport as an accreditation document was in 2021.

Thankfully, up until now, my actions have only been considered a 'threat' to the constitutional order within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. And as such, we'll continue to work with our European counterparts on exposing the corruption and war crimes that result from Vladimir Putin's worldview.

Author bio

Mikhail Komin is editor at independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe, and currently a resident journalist at EUobserver.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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