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Two theories Why did the Russian authorities designate Meduza as a ‘foreign agent’?

Source: Meduza
Alexander Shcherbak / TASS

As you may have learned from the crowdfunding banners now adorning this website, the Russian authorities designated Meduza as a “foreign agent” on April 23. Our new status in Russia has chased away advertisers and deprived us of revenue, endangering Meduza’s continued existence. We asked the Justice Ministry why it believes we are “foreign agents,” and officials sent a formal response (translated below) that explains almost nothing. Why did the Justice Ministry act now? Why did it target Meduza? And who ordered this? Meduza correspondents spoke to sources with knowledge of the Kremlin’s inner workings and found two plausible theories.

The Justice Ministry’s “explanation”

“In response to a request dated April 28, 2020, regarding the registration of a foreign mass media outlet performing the functions of a foreign agent, we provide the following notification: Based on documents received from authorized state agencies of the Russian Federation verifying that it has the features matching a foreign mass media outlet performing the functions of a foreign agent, as established by Russian Mass Media Law Number 2124-1, the legal entity registered in the Latvian Republic SIA ‘Medusa Project’ (registration number 40103797863, registered on June 10, 2014) was added to the [‘foreign agents’] registry on April 23, 2021. Russia’s Justice Ministry decided to include information on this legal entity in the registry was reached in accordance with the Russian Federation’s rules and regulations.”

Theory #1: Russia added Meduza to its “foreign agent” list in retaliation for Latvia’s treatment of the Russian state media agency Sputnik

“What’s going on? Did they already block Meduza in response to Latvia blocking Russian sites? No? And why not?” asked Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan on her Telegram channel on April 1, 2020. This invitation to retaliate against Meduza came a day after RT announced that its Russian-language website was no longer available in Latvia, due to censorship by the local authorities. Three weeks later, Russia’s Justice Ministry added Meduza to its registry of “foreign agents.” “Rays of approval to the Justice Ministry!” Simonyan cheered on social media, following reports about Meduza’s new status in Russia. Soon thereafter, the Sputnik Near Abroad Telegram channel reposted a text arguing that Meduza “got off relatively lightly.” (Sputnik Near Abroad belongs to the “Rossiya Segodnya” Russian state media group, whose various projects have been banned in Latvia, where local law enforcement have also opened criminal investigations against some staff members.)

On April 24, spokespeople for Russia’s Justice Ministry told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta that media outlets can be designated as “foreign agents” if they meet just three criteria: (1) the outlet’s publisher is registered in a foreign jurisdiction, (2) the outlet receives funding from abroad, and (3) the outlet distributes information in Russia (that is, information in Russian through the Internet). 

In effect, any foreign media outlet that releases content in Russian meets the Justice Ministry’s “foreign agent” criteria, but the authorities have been extremely selective about enforcement, so far. Before designating Meduza, Russia’s list of “foreign agent” news organizations was limited to the U.S.-government-funded outlets Voice of America and 11 media projects under the umbrella of Radio Liberty, as well as the Czech news agency Medium-Orient, which receives money from the Open Society Foundations, created by the billionaire George Soros. 

Thanks to the nature of their funding, these essentially nonprofit organizations have managed to keep working while ignoring their new “foreign agent” status in Russia. For example, Radio Liberty’s various projects have accumulated more than 71.5 million rubles ($952,380) in non-compliance fines, but they’re still online and operational. 

Why can’t Meduza ignore its ‘foreign agent’ status?

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The law requires the Justice Ministry to determine “foreign agent” designations in consultation with Russia’s Foreign Ministry, whose spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, says the Foreign Ministry “complied with its legal requirements” regarding Meduza. Zakharova also told reporters that “foreign agent” status has no bearing on the ministry’s cooperation with journalists. “As before, we answer [their] questions, give comments, and accredit them for events,” she explained.

Zakharova says Meduza was designated as a “foreign agent” only because it meets all three criteria, stressing that there was no other reason for the decision. She told Novaya Gazeta that Russia’s Foreign Ministry has never had a problem with Meduza and views it as just another news outlet.

At the same time, Zakharova has repeatedly expressed concerns about the persecution of Russian state media outlets in Latvia, where Meduza is based. In mid-April, for example, she denounced the Latvian security services for interrogating five employees at Sputnik Latvia and the Russian-language news agency Baltnews (part of “Rossiya Segodnya”). These people are now suspected of felony violations of national security sanctions and could face up to five years in prison if convicted. In December 2020, the Latvian authorities brought the same charges against another seven authors published at Sputnik Latvia and Baltnews, according to Sputnik Latvia.

The pretext for Latvia’s crackdown on the “Rossiya Segodnya” media affiliates and reporters is European sanctions against Dmitry Kiselyov, Rossiya Segodnya’s CEO. A year ago, in the summer of 2020, Latvia’s National Council on Electronic Media prohibited the local transmission of seven Russia Today stations on the grounds that they “violate the EU’s economic sanctions” because the TV networks are “under Kiselyov’s control.”

The television network Russia Today (the basis of today’s various RT channels) was founded in 2005 by the state news agency RIA Novosti to broadcast content in different countries around the world. Margarita Simonyan became the new organization’s editor-in-chief. At the time, Dmitry Kiselyov hosted the show “Vesti+” on the Rossiya television network. In 2013, the Kremlin dissolved RIA Novosti and replaced it with the “Rossiya Segodnya” International News Agency, appointing Kiselyov as CEO. Remaining the head of Russia Today, Simonyan joined Rossiya Segodnya as editor-in-chief. A year later, in 2014, she was also named the editor-in-chief of Sputnik, a Rossiya Segodnya offshoot. 

All these organizations are funded by the Russian state, but Dmitry Kiselyov and the television network Russia Today aren’t formally connected, at least not directly. Kiselyov is merely the CEO of the company that became the successor of the entity that founded RT. Also, Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan reports to Kiselyov as his subordinate in two roles (as editor-in-chief of both Rossiya Segodnya and Sputnik). 

“We consider the criminal prosecution of journalists in this country [Latvia] to be a blatant violation of international laws on free expression and the principle of mass media pluralism,” Zakharova said in a press briefing on April 15.

Two sources close to the Putin administration confirmed that the problems Rossiya Segodnya and Russia Today have experienced in Latvia were the reason Russia’s Justice Ministry decided to act against Meduza, which is registered in Latvia. The initiative reportedly came directly from the president’s top advisers. 

“Simonyan asked [first deputy chief of staff Alexey] Gromov to add Meduza to the ‘foreign agents’ list for Sputnik in Latvia. It was the last straw for her, and Gromov needed to meet his key performance indicators on fighting foreign influence,” said one of Meduza’s sources, explaining the logic behind Meduza’s new status in Russia.

Speaking to Meduza, Simonyan denied asking the Putin administration to designate Meduza as a foreign agent, saying, “The only time I’ve intervened in the fate of Meduza or its staff was with the Golunov case. Latvia did the rest to you, all by itself. Go and ask them.” (After police arrested Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov in June 2019, Simonyan wrote on her Telegram channel that Golunov should be transferred to house arrest while the authorities gathered their evidence against him. “He should at least be at home, not in a stinking cell, while he waits for the end of this investigation,” wrote Simonyan.)

Theory #2: Russia’s National Security Council advocates a “blockade” of foreign news outlets

Other sources told Meduza that the Justice Ministry’s designation possibly has nothing to do with the conflict between Latvia and Rossiya Segodnya. In fact, our new status could portend similar problems for other foreign media outlets now operating in Russia.

Another individual close to the Russian government’s cabinet confirmed that senior officials discussed a “blockade” of foreign media outlets at a recent briefing for the president and the permanent members of Russia’s National Security Council, where they considered “media outlets with foreign funding that operate in the Russian language.” Most of these media organizations would presumably get “foreign agent” status in Russia.

Meduza’s source says the Kremlin has no “clear list” of foreign news outlets to be designated, but first up would likely be the media organizations with state funding, such as the BBC Russian Service. “Gromov could have pointed out that Meduza isn’t one of these media outlets, but he decided not to,” explains Meduza’s source.

Another individual with ties to the National Security Council confirms that members recently discuss foreign news organizations, but the conversation supposedly didn’t concern a “blockade.”

“It was about information exchanges and the need to distinguish the mass media from the intelligence community’s tools,” said the source, adding that some senior government officials genuinely believe that Meduza and other foreign publications serve as “the instruments of intelligence agencies.”

Another source familiar with the chain of command in Russia’s federal government told Meduza that the National Security Council’s positions on various issues, as well as its specific instructions, are communicated to ministers and officials.

Story by Tatiana Lysova, Svetlana Reiter, Andrey Pertsev, and Alexey Kovalev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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