The authorities are stepping up their attack on independent media. The Ministry of Justice announced Friday that Meduza, Russia’s most popular independent media outlet, has been designated a ‘foreign agent’ (a Soviet-era term implying espionage). Theoretically, this has no impact. However, in reality, it limits Meduza’s ability to share articles on social media and could lead to a fall in advertising revenue.
- Legislation allowing media outlets to be designated as ‘foreign agents’ came into force in 2017 and was beefed up two years later. Until now, the ‘foreign agents list’ has only included publications officially financed by foreign governments like the U.S. funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Meduza is the first major independent outlet on the list.
- From now on, Meduza will be obliged to preface all its articles and social media posts with a capitalized paragraph of text. On a smartphone, this takes up seven lines of the screen. From now on, Meduza’s Facebook posts will look like this:
- Theoretically, it’s not just Meduza who is affected: anyone who shares a link to a Meduza story is now supposed to refer to the media outlet’s ‘foreign agent’ status. If not, that individual can also be deemed a ‘media foreign agent’ (although this procedure has not yet been tested in court).
- If it breaks the rules, Meduza faces a fine of up to 5 million rubles ($67,000). Repeat violations would see the publication blocked in Russia. Readers who share Meduza articles without the relevant warning can be fined up to 2,500 rubles ($35), while other media outlets that re-post stories could be forced to pay up to 50,000 ($800). Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, a ‘foreign agent’ since 2017, has already incurred 19 million rubles ($253,000) in fines.
- But the biggest blow for Meduza is likely to be loss of advertising. Officially, there is no ban on advertising with a foreign agent, but any Russian company is likely to be nervous of such an association. In particular, companies doing business with the state will see it as a red flag. Advertising currently provides Meduza with the bulk of its revenue and Galina Timchenko, Meduza’s founder and CEO, told The Bell that she could not rule out financial problems.
- The most popular independent publication in Russia, Meduza was set-up by journalists from Lenta.ru who lost their jobs for political reasons after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Meduza calculates its monthly readership is 13.9 million people.
Why the world should care
The Russian government has spent several years building a legislative arsenal that enables it to stifle any inconvenient media outlet – we are now seeing these weapons put to serious use for the first time.