‘We’re left with no choice’ iStories editor-in-chief Roman Anin says the Russian authorities force independent journalists to register abroad and incur ‘foreign agent’ status
On August 20, Russia’s Justice Ministry added new media outlets and journalists to its ever-growing list of “foreign agents.” iStories and its editor-in-chief, Roman Anin, were among these new designees. Anin is no stranger to police pressure after the authorities raided his home this spring in connection with an investigation into an investigative report he co-authored years ago about Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin’s then-wife. Anin told Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova that iStories have been preparing for “foreign agent” status for a long time.
Were you ready for your turn on the “foreign agent” registry?
Of course. We expected it and prepared.
We never concealed from our readers that we’re registered in Latvia. When iStories was founded [in 2020], on the day of our first story, we made this as clear as day. We [went abroad] to preserve our independence from the Russian authorities, who by 2021 have declared a full-fledged war against independent journalism and opposition politicians, whom they persecute and throw in prison. They’ve basically declared war on everything free in Russia.
We’re even surprised that we stayed off this list for so long, given the number of investigative reports we’ve published about representatives of the Russian authorities.
Was the iStories staff prepared for the outlet’s transition to this new status?
The guys and I talk about it almost every week. The first thing I tell anyone who comes to iStories is that there is the risk of “foreign agent” status, both as a media outlet and as an individual employee. And all the guys in the newsroom recognize the risk and understand it, but they stick with the work because they believe that journalism should be independent and it should hold the authorities to account.
Will you challenge the Justice Ministry’s decision in court?
I’m in touch with lawyers about that. I think it needs to happen if only so we can then go to the [European Court of Human Rights]. But, of course, I have no illusions about winning an appeal. That would take believing that Russia has [independent] courts.
Will the new status affect your newsroom’s daily operations?
Well, we haven’t yet operated under this new status. You [at Meduza] should be the one telling me. I think it will affect our work. I’m certain that it will.
You were designated as a “foreign agent” based on a complaint filed by Alexander Ionov. What do you guess his motivations are and what did he write in his complaint to the Justice Ministry?
This man has no motives. Shvonders have started gaining popularity in Russia again today. These people have no motives. It’s just that, when a country begins to get sick, they start multiplying like parasites inside an infected organism. Looking for their motives is pointless — you’re talking about another species entirely.
Is it possible right now in Russia for independent media to exist without foreign funding? An investigative news outlet isn’t likely to win any presidential grants...
No, it’s impossible, and that’s the whole point. All independent media outlets are registered abroad and trying to survive as NGOs. That’s because the authorities have scared away all advertisers in Russia. If a company buys ad space with a publication that criticizes Putin or his friends, then that advertiser will have problems.
The authorities have also scared off all potential owners of media outlets and anyone ready to invest in this industry. For example, take [Mikhail] Prokhorov, who was raided after RBC published investigative reports [about Putin’s family and revelations contained in the Panama Papers]. Or there’s [Alexander] Lebedev, Novaya Gazeta’s former owner.
They all confirm my thesis: The Russian authorities have left journalists with no choice. Our registration abroad and our work with such financing is out of necessity. In other circumstances, we’d gladly register in Russia.