An unprecedented crowdfunding campaign looks like a potent new form of protest

The Bell

What happened

Last week, Russia witnessed one of its most amazing manifestations of civil society in recent years. A Moscow court fined opposition news outlet, The New Times, 22 million rubles ($400,000) for failing to report foreign funding. Paying would have meant bankruptcy. But when news of the fine went public, the outlet, which has never been particularly popular, managed to raise enough money to pay it off after just a 4-day crowdfunding campaign.

  • Under Russian law, media outlets are required to report to the government if they receive funding from abroad or from so-called foreign agents NGOs, which are funded from abroad. If this isn’t done, they face fines equal at least to the size of the foreign funding. The New Times received money from the Fund to Support the Free Press, which is registered in Russia but accepts funds from foreign donors, but did not report the funding. An inspection led to The New Times being hit with the largest fine in the history of Russian media business.
  • After the court announced its decision, publisher Yevgenia Albats, who holds a PhD from Harvard University, wrote: “the magazine doesn’t have 22 million rubles, nor ten times less than this. If we don’t pay the fine, they will shut us down (although there is a slight chance that we might appeal the decision) – therefore we are announcing a fundraising campaign”. This looked like a long shot, but in just four days they raised $480,000 and donations continues to pour in.
  • The New Times is an old, independent magazine that writes about politics and society, and specializes in investigative reporting. Notably, the magazine reported on Putin’s eldest daughter (the president hides everything about his family) and a slush fund used by the Kremlin to finance the so-called loyal opposition. But the publication can’t be called popular, probably the fairest description is: “widely read in narrow circles”. In 2017, it scrapped its magazine became an online-only publication. Now it has 15,000 subscribers, but donations in the crowdfunding campaign came from at least 20,000 individuals, according to Albats. These ranged from tiny donations from the regions to a former head of the Central Bank and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. The owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant in London, Yevgeny Chichvarkin, donated $17,800.

Why the world should care

To understand why so much money was collected so quickly, you shouldn’t think about this media outlet specifically, but the nature of Russian civil society. When you can go to jail for sharing a social media post or attending a protest, donations become political statements. Several opposition publications in Russia successfully survive through crowdfunding, but the huge amount raised in such a short period of time by The New Times is unprecedented. It seems clear that these donations are a form of protest.

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