The Russian authorities this week dramatically escalated their assault on independent journalism. Until now, the most repressive tactic has been to designate independent journalists and media outlets as ‘foreign agents’ — affecting their financial viability and complicating. But this changed Thursday when investigative outlet Proekt was branded an ‘undesirable organization’. This means Proekt faces closure and anybody who continues to work for them could be sentenced to up to six years in prison.
- When Russian officials began a crusade against independent media in May with the designation of outlet Meduza as a ‘foreign agent’, it was obvious Proekt, which focuses on exposing corruption in Putin’s inner circle, would soon also find itself in the cross-hairs. As Proekt is a ‘non-profit’ and does not sell advertising, there was little merit in branding it a ‘foreign agent’ — Meduza’s experience shows the biggest issue with that status is the immediate exodus of advertisers and the collapse of an established business model.
- It became clear Thursday that the Kremlin had thought of this – and found an alternative. The Prosecutor General’s Office announced Proekt would not be designated a ‘foreign agent’ but an ‘undesirable organization’ – a far more extreme step. Undesirable organizations are prohibited from working in Russia and individuals who cooperate with them can be fined or jailed for up to six years. Even quoting or re-posting material from Proekt puts individuals or organizations at risk of a fine.
- Proekt’s editorial board responded by saying that its U.S. legal entity, Project Media Inc., has been dissolved, but said their investigations will go on. “We will announce later how our team of journalists will continue their work,” they said in a statement. However, lawyers interviewed by The Bell fear this will not reduce the risks. If Proekt’s journalists remain in Russia, it’s likely they will run into serious problems — and will be fortunate to escape with just fines. Three Proekt employees are already witnesses in a criminal libel case.
- Even if Proekt closes down entirely, its journalists face an uncertain future. Five members of staff were listed Thursday as ‘foreign agents’ alongside two directors of Otkritie Media, a media outlet set-up by exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Now all of them (even if they cease to work in journalism) must inform the Ministry of Justice about their earnings, while their social media posts must be accompanied by long disclaimers that look like this.
- Imposing ‘undesirable organisation’ or ‘foreign agent’ status does not require a court hearing and nobody is obliged to explain the reasoning behind such a decision. But in Proekt’s case it’s clear how the process unfolded: first, state-owned RT published an article about Proekt’s foreign funding. Then, Vitaly Borodin, the pliant head of the Federal Security and Anti-Corruption Project (judging by its name, a spoiler for opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation) asked the Prosecutor General to look into Proekt. His formal request listed Proekt’s employees and claimed “all of them are supported by the U.S. and work in [America’s] interests.”
Why the world should care: It’s getting more dangerous for Russia’s journalists to do their job with every passing week – and there are still two more months until parliamentary elections. Proekt is unlikely to be the last independent media outlet to be targeted.