‘I don’t want to become a political prisoner’ Three ‘foreign agent’ journalists describe life after designation by Russia’s Justice Ministry
In Russia, you don’t have to be a legal entity to be designated as a “foreign agent” — all you need is a pulse. Last December, for the first time, the Justice Ministry added a handful of individuals to its registry. The authorities named five journalists and activists. The designations imposed the same public accounting requirements on these people that burden Meduza, which was named a “foreign agent” in late April 2020. In other words, they’re now forced to mark anything they write or share online (or in the mass media) with a loud, inescapable notification that they have “foreign agent” status in Russia. The law also demands that these individuals create formal legal entities, in order to report their earnings and spending to the government. Russia’s regulations do not stipulate, however, that each “foreign agent” needs a separate legal entity, and so three “agents” on the Justice Ministry’s list actually created a joint LLC. To learn more about how this status changes ordinary life, Meduza spoke to journalists and “foreign agents” Denis Kamalyagin, Sergey Markelov, and Lyudmila Savitskaya.
Editor-in-chief of Gubernia Media, designated as an individual “foreign agent” for receiving honoraria from the U.S.-government-funded media outlet Sever Realii, a division of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Kamalyagin says his new status has had no real effect on his life. Until an online seminar offered by a human rights group spooked him in January, he didn’t even bother to write his “foreign agent” notifications in capslock. “I don’t take any of this seriously,” he told Meduza. “I don’t agree that journalists should have to register in the ‘foreign agents’ registry, but screaming bloody murder and saying that they’ve scared us out of the profession — no, that’s absolutely not the case.” At the same time, he admits that he sometimes thinks about finding political asylum abroad.
Like others designated by Russia’s Justice Ministry, Kamalyagin is now challenging the government in court. A judge has already rejected his request to suspend his “foreign agent” status until the case is resolved, but the ruling itself demonstrates how arbitrarily Russia’s justice system enforces the law: A court temporarily lifted Lyudmila Savitskaya’s status, though her designation was based on identical criteria. “There’s no difference except gender,” Kamalyagin told Meduza.
When it comes to the forms and disclosures “foreign agents” must file with the state, Kamalyagin is also rather nonchalant. The standard paperwork comprises 80 pages, but he says he found a 35-page Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that suffices. Some people make a point of reporting their spending in exhaustive detail, but Kamalyagin says he paints in broader strokes and doesn’t worry about non-compliance complaints. “They can’t double-check my expenses or what I spend my cash on,” he explains.
Kamalyagin has even used his new status to toy with the local authorities, wiring money to Pskov’s governor, his chief of staff, a regional State Duma deputy, and two pro-Kremlin media publishers. “I sent them funds [...] and wrote in my last report to the Justice Ministry that they’ve now received financing from a ‘foreign agent,’” Kamalyagin told Meduza. “This was around the time when the State Duma adopted the law on affiliations with ‘foreign agent’ individuals. In theory, when running for office, these comrades are now supposed to devote at least 15 percent of the space on their campaign materials to notifications that they’re tied to ‘foreign agents.’ I did this back in mid-January and I’m interested to see what happens.”
Journalist at 7x7, designated as a “foreign agent” for honoraria received from the U.S.-government-funded media outlet Sever Realii, a division of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
The financial disclosure requirements imposed on “foreign agents” are no picnic, says Markelov. “The state peeps through your wallet, your personal things, your prescriptions — and you have to report all this to them,” he told Meduza. Besides hours of lost time, this process isn’t free, either. The entity Markelov and his companions created to comply with the law, “Foreign Agent, As If” LLC, has to pay for external audits that cost anywhere between 30,000 and 300,000 rubles ($400 and $4,000), and finding a lawyer to complete this work isn’t easy.
Knowing that he’s just the first of many “foreign agents” likely to come, Markelov says he feels obligated to challenge the Justice Ministry’s designation, testing the limits of the legal system, while simultaneously doing everything he can to comply with the regulations.
Markelov has reported on the controversial prosecution of historian and human rights activist Yuri Dmitriev, while Lyudmila Savitskaya has written about the “justifying terrorism” case against journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva. By going after regional freelance journalists who have covered big stories, the Russian authorities are trying to scare other independent journalists away from such reporting, says Markelov.
Journalist at Radio Svoboda, designated as a “foreign agent” for honoraria received from the U.S.-government-funded media outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Whereas Denis Kamalyagin says “foreign agent” status hasn’t really changed his life, Lyudmila Savitskaya says the state’s designation has completely erased her private life. “Now Comrade Major and the Justice Ministry know literally everything about me, right down to the brand of tampons I use,” she told Meduza. Even Savitskaya’s mother has been affected: she now needs special paperwork from her bank to prove that the money she sends to her daughter is meant for medications “and not for the next Joe Biden campaign.”
Learning the hard way, Savitskaya has also discovered some obstacles when it comes to compliance with Russia’s “foreign agent” requirements. To create a legal entity to work with the Justice Ministry, she initially tried to register a charity called “Journalist Foreign Agent.” The ministry collected her 4,000-ruble ($50) filing fee but rejected the application on a ludicrous technicality, she says. The money was never refunded. In the end, Savitskaya decided instead to create an LLC using the same name.
The filing fee was a small sum of money, but Savitskaya has faced more serious losses when it comes to employment. Before her “foreign agent” status, Savitskaya freelanced regularly for MBK Media. That collaboration ended when the news outlet refused to warn readers of Savitskaya’s articles, as required by Russian law, that she is a registered “foreign agent.”
Savitskaya says MBK Media wanted to use her as a guinea pig of sorts, publishing her reporting without any “foreign agent” notification, at least until the government issued a formal warning. “But the law is written in such a way that it takes just two administrative offenses before it’s a felony case,” she told Meduza. “And I don’t want to become a political prisoner just because an independent publication decided that it wants to twist the lion’s tail.”
Luckily for Savitskaya, Radio Svoboda has continued to employ her without asking her to jeopardize her safety in Russia. Less fortunately, she says her “foreign agent” status is scaring away some sources. “Earlier today, one state official tactfully advised me to look elsewhere,” says Savitskaya.
However difficult these new challenges of the job become, they’re now a fact of life. On May 5, the Pskov City Court rejected Savitskaya’s lawsuit against the Justice Ministry, human rights lawyer Tatiana Martynova told Interfax.