Exclusive: Putin stifles journalism with law on “foreign agents”, says Nobel laureates Russian editor

Independent journalists see this as an indelible swab. Russian President Vladimir Putin insists that it is not intended to wrinkle or censor, but merely to inform readers and viewers that some of the media they enjoy have foreign funding.

“This law does not prohibit anyone from having their own opinion on a matter. It is about receiving financial aid from abroad during domestic policy,” Putin said recently.

“While journalists were killed by hired assassins in the 1990s and early 1920s, as was the case with our journalist Anna Politkovskaya, for example – now it’s a policy of soft strangulation, which is happening with the help of the law on foreign agents, “he told CNN.

As editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, he lost six colleagues from the newspaper in the fight for the truth. The most famous among them was Politkovskaya. An American born but strongly devoted to Russia, she was shot 15 years ago on the doorstep of her Moscow apartment.

The former Politkovskaya office in the newspaper building is partly a museum, partly an investigation center. Documents and photographs cover the entire wall, accusations and suspects are intertwined with black thread.

“When a medium is declared‘ undesirable ’, it has to be declared an enemy of the public, which means it actually stops working,” says the bearded boss, who has already donated his Nobel Prize to children’s charities and journalism.

Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia, as president, then prime minister, now president again, since New Year’s Eve 1999. In those 22 years, journalists and opposition politicians have been assassinated, and their killers are rarely, if at all, identified.

“Being an opposition politician, independent journalist or blogger is clearly a risky business in Russia. More than a dozen have been murdered or died in suspicious circumstances. Many others have been subjected to violent attacks. Some of these crimes are an effective investigation that maintains an atmosphere of impunity. “Tanya Lokshina, associate director of Human Rights Watch for Europe and Central Asia, based in Moscow, told CNN.

Whoever ordered Politkovskaya’s murder remains at large.

Five Chechen men were convicted in 2017 for the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin two years earlier. But no one identified who offered them 15 million rubles prize the court said they were promised murder.

Politicians like Alexei Navalny have been jailed for fabricated allegations. And Navalny continues to suffer the effects of poisoning with Novichok, a nerve agent known to have been produced only by the Russian state.

Independent journalists do not believe that the physical dangers for them have disappeared. Several of them escaped into exile. Being labeled as a foreign agent probably further increases the dangers they face.

Especially since Putin remains popular with most Russians.

“Putin relies on the love and loyalty of more than 70% of Russians. And he is the president of the majority. And as far as the interests of the minority are concerned, he is not their president. And their newspapers are labeled as foreign agents. Their opposition is shattered, their leaders are imprisoned. Says Muratov.

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The recent application of the 2017 Media Act, which eventually labeled 88 media outlets and individuals as “foreign agents,” was a blow to the solar plexus of journalists who see their work as a patriotic duty.

Dozhd TV studios are buzzing with the same hipster energy that fills refurbished warehouses with galleries and designer shops around them. But it’s an anxious knock. In August, the media house found itself on list of new “foreign agents”.

A red warning set by the government fills the screen in front of each new segment in each show. It is also mandatory in every tweet seen on the channel’s website.


Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead on the doorstep of her Moscow apartment 15 years ago.

In Stalin’s time, which is very much remembered in Russia, such a naming would lead to a quick exhibition trial and, for the rare lucky ones, to a bullet in the back of the head. The unfortunate would be taken to a slow death among the millions of other victims of the Soviet purges.

“When you are labeled a foreign agent, you are basically called an enemy of the state; because if you work for another country, then you are working against your country, which of course is not true. But in Russia with its own terrible history, it means a lot. work safely with you, ”explains Tikhon Dzyadko, Editor-in-Chief at TV Rain.

“If you don’t label any of your materials [with the red warning], even a photo of cute little puppies from New Zealand, if you forget to use those 24 words that say this material is ‘created by foreign agents’, you could be fined 300,000 rubles, secondly 1 million rubles, thirdly, I guess 5 million rubles. And then, if we don’t pay, there could be criminal proceedings against me and the owner of TV Rain, “he explains.

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He says that so far the advertising revenues have not been severely affected and that this is a small part of the company’s revenue. But the commercial implications are obvious, and he says he would try to figure out why someone who advertises cars would want to publish them in the face of a government accusation that is unpatriotic at best.

At other sites, he said, revenues fell by 90%.

In Russia’s recent apparent attempts to silence the opposition with the label “foreign agent,” there is a Kafkaesque element. Putin’s argument – that it is not about censorship, but only about the exact picture of where the funding comes from – is not reflected in the labels of the government’s Tass or Interfax news agency, Russia’s dominant press service.

Technically, any or any press organization that receives any funding, albeit insignificant, outside the country, can be labeled a “foreign agent”. But this does not apply to pro-Kremlin outfits.

Both Tass and Interfax – according to reports Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media – receive foreign funds but have avoided being designated as “foreign agents”.
Thus, in fact, the holding company that owns RT is formerly known as Russia Today. In January 2017, the U.S. intelligence agencies accused the television network that it is part of the “Russian state propaganda machine.”

Putin has repeatedly said that the Russian labels, which accidentally followed RT’s problems in Washington in 2017, simply reflect U.S. law. However, there are no American journalists fleeing their government.

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Roman Dobrohotov is hiding in Europe. He is the editor-in-chief of the recently named “foreign agent” The Insider, a news agency specializing in investigations that gets some funding outside of Russia.

He did not disclose his location to CNN. His wife, children and extended family followed him.

In Russia, he is accused of slandering a Dutch blogger who is generally pro-Putin. Dobrohotov strongly denies this accusation. But repeated police raids on his own home and his parents ’residence meant he feared it would follow even worse.

The latest round of what he calls state intimidation came after he worked with foreign media and his website to investigate Navalny’s poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent in Russia.

“Everyone understands that these are the most difficult times for Russian journalism since the Soviet Union, even since the actual Stalin era,” he says.

Awarding the Nobel Prize to Murat and Maria Ressi, a Filipino journalist who, like him, fought hard for freedom of the press, might offer him some protection … for now.

Nobel laureate Muratov, who says the newspaper does not receive funding outside of Russia, sighs: “If they want to declare us foreign agents, they will. We could not defend ourselves before that. This decision is made. Out of court and without trial.”


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