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Outlaw journalism Legally speaking, this is what Proekt’s ‘undesirable’ designation means for Russia’s news media and readers

Source: Meduza

The Russian Attorney General’s Office has designated the investigative news outlet Proekt as an “undesirable” organization, outlawing its operations in Russia. Just as the decision was announced, Justice Ministry officials added five of Proekt’s journalists (as well as another three reporters from other news organizations) to Russia’s “foreign agents” registry. Meduza breaks down what this means for Proekt, its audience, and the country’s news media broadly.

This story was first published in 2021, when the Russian Prosecutor General labeled Proekt an “undesirable organization.” On January 26, 2023, Meduza also became an “undesirable organization” under the Russian law. Now, everything described in this story also applies to us.

It is illegal to distribute materials created by “undesirable organizations”

This prohibition affects other news outlets and ordinary individuals alike, and it applies not just to reprinting Proekt’s articles but even to sharing hyperlinks to Proekt and “liking” any of its content on social media. 

In the near future, the Attorney General’s Office could order Russian Internet providers to block access to Proekt. The same fate could await any other news outlets that link to the website.

Russian law enforcement officials interpret the ban on “distributing the information materials of undesirable organizations” to include content published previously online. Even if Proekt never again updates its website, the Attorney General’s Office could target the materials that remain online. In any event, editor-in-chief Roman Badanin has already signaled that Proekt won’t wait around to see what the Russian authorities do next: he’s vowed to publish “something big,” next week. 

Any websites that contain hyperlinks to Proekt could be blocked in Russia, in part or entirely, for “distributing” illegal materials.

Participating in the activities of an “undesirable organization” is a misdemeanor offense. Merely reposting content from Proekt could constitute such “participation.”

When it comes to first-time violations, working for “undesirable organizations” is punishable mainly with fines:

  • For civilians, from 5,000 to 15,000 rubles ($70 to $200)
  • For public officials, from 25,000 to 50,000 rubles ($335 to $675)
  • For organizations, from 50,000 to 100,000 rubles ($675 to $1,345)

Distributing messages from an “undesirable organization” is banned, but neither the law nor existing regulations specify penalties for ordinary individuals who violate this clause. (Admittedly, a court might consider content distribution to be a form of illegal participation.)

After the fines comes felony prosecution

Anyone who fails to cease all cooperation with an “undesirable organization” after a single misdemeanor conviction faces felony prosecution and penalties ranging from fines of 300,000 rubles ($4,030) to four years in prison.

Thinking about managing an “undesirable organization” in Russia? It’s a felony offense.

Anyone convicted of organizing the activities of one of these banned groups faces penalties ranging from several hundred hours of community service to six years in prison. It’s still unclear if undesirable organizations’ directors are immediately guilty of a felony offense, the moment that Russian officials make the designation.

The Russian authorities have yet to charge anyone with leading an “undesirable organization.” Even the felony case against former Open Russia executive director Andrey Pivovarov is based on multiple administrative violations, not his old status at the now-disbanded organization.

Donating money or offering any form of financial assistance to an “undesirable organization” can also lead to felony charges

“Providing or raising funds or providing financial services” to an “undesirable organization” is punishable by up to 360 hours of community service or as many as five years in prison. Proekt relies in part on crowdfunding to sustain its operations.

Russian officials haven’t before prosecuted anyone for these offenses, so it’s still unclear if police will target people who sent money to Proekt (for example, through recurring donations) immediately after the Attorney General’s Office banned the news outlet.

Russian citizens are prohibited from collaborating with “undesirable organizations” both inside Russia and abroad

First-time violators face misdemeanor charges, but the offense escalates to a felony in round two. 

The journalists whom the Justice Ministry designated as “foreign agents” also risk misdemeanor and then felony liability

The individual reporters added to Russia’s “foreign agent” registry are now required to mark any published articles and posts on social media with a special notification about the Justice Ministry’s designation. First-offense non-compliance risks a fine as high as 2,500 rubles ($35).

These journalists are also obligated to register a legal entity (a firm or company) that works with the Justice Ministry to file complex accounting reports. Violations or mistakes with this paperwork carry only administrative fines at first but can lead to felony liability after two offenses:

  • 10,000 rubles ($135) for the first managerial violation
  • 50,000 rubles ($675) for second violations
  • Up to 300,000 rubles ($4,030) or two years in prison for third violations

Media outlets that distribute any messages or content created by “foreign agent” journalists must mark these materials with the Justice Ministry’s designation. Ordinary people distributing these materials are not under this obligation, however.

Text by Dmitry Dmitriev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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