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‘Our readership is smarter than the Kremlin thinks’ Meduza talks to the chief editors of blacklisted Russian media outlets about their plans for the future

Source: Meduza

The Russian authorities’ unprecedented attack on independent journalism is continuing apace. Since April 2021, seven media outlets and 20 individual journalists have been declared “foreign agents.” Another investigative publication was deemed an “undesirable organization.” Meduza asked the editors-in-chief of six blacklisted media outlets to respond to the same set of questions about how they’re coping with the crackdown. Though their answers varied, they all agreed they can’t count on the authorities easing up. As it turns out, all of these top editors are proceeding from the assumption that producing honest journalism in Russia will only get more and more difficult. But this also means that their reporting will be increasingly in demand. 

Please note. The following interviews have been summarized for length and clarity. You can read the original interviews in Russian here.

‘It will be worse going forward’

Ivan Kolpakov, editor-in-chief of Meduza

Meduza was designated as a “foreign agent” on April 23, 2021

It’s been months since Meduza was declared a “foreign agent,” but editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov still doesn’t know exactly why this happened. “It’s likely a combination of factors: the events in Belarus, the poisoning and arrest of [Alexey] Navalny, the State Duma elections in September 2021, the strengthening of the Security Council, the escalation of the conflict with the West,” he speculates. At the same time, Kolpakov points out that the amendments made to Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation in December 2020 foreshadowed the current crackdown on the free press. “The very existence of an effective repressive machine also played a role,” he says. “The government […] couldn’t help but want to test it.”

Being labeled a “foreign agent” forced Meduza to turn to crowdfunding, but it also made it more difficult for the newsroom to report on events in Russia — and not just because sources and newsmakers are weary of talking to “foreign agents.” “The authorities are trying to present us as a publication that fulfills not journalistic, but propaganda functions; that works for foreign governments — and works against Russia; that isn’t independent, doesn’t strive for objectivity and impartiality. All of this is a lie,” Kolpakov underscores.

Meduza’s journalists have been working under “unprecedented pressure” since April 2021, which has forced the editorial board to change its development strategy. “Our main goal is to survive, even if the pressure continues or intensifies,” Kolpakov says. Meanwhile, the publication is still disputing its “foreign agent” designation in court, even though this is likely to no avail. “For us it’s important to try and do this — primarily as a sign that we consider this decision illegal,” the editor-in-chief explains.

Meduza has no plans to shut down, Kolpakov says, “though we really thought about it when the authorities declared us a ‘foreign agent’.” Going forward, the newsroom plans to comply with the requirements of Russian law and “do our best to ensure that Meduza’s inclusion on the ‘foreign agents’ list doesn’t influence our editorial policy.” 

“In any case, we have to proceed from the fact that it will be worse going forward,” Kolpakov concludes. “Over the past 10 years, not a single optimistic forecast about the socio-political situation in Russia has come true. Right now there’s no more reason to think otherwise.”

‘I’m thinking about quitting journalism’

Yulia Yarosh, former editor-in-chief of Open Media

Yulia Yarosh was declared a “foreign agent” on July 15, 2021. On August 4, Russia’s federal censor blocked Open Media’s website. The outlet announced that it was shutting down the next day. 

“This story isn’t about us, but about a ‘clean-up’ of the media,” says Yulia Yarosh, the former editor-in-chief of the news outlet Open Media, when asked why she and her colleagues were designated as “foreign agents.” The way she sees it, this status is just one of the “many instruments” the Russian authorities use to interfere with journalists’ work. Indeed, as she recalls, many of the indie media outlets established in Russia in recent years popped up in the wake of the authorities taking control of major television networks and newspapers. “The whole ‘cleanup’ turned out to be useless, because an investigation is done by Proekt and is being quoted by Kommersant,” she explains. “I think this started to cause irritation and someone decided it’s time to end the migration of ‘unreliable comrades’ between different projects.” 

In addition to Yulia Yarosh, Open Media’s deputy chief editor Maxim Glikin, and reporters Ilya Rozhdestvensky and Alexey Posternak were also designated as “foreign agents” in mid-July. Now, Yarosh and Glinkin are trying to challenge this decision in court — the hearing was supposed to begin on August 30, but was pushed until September 8. The former Open Media journalists are hoping their lawsuit will force the Russian Justice Ministry to reveal the reasoning behind its decision. “But I think this case is hopeless,” Yarosh adds. “I think this is a ritual gesture. I don’t hope to win, but I’m suing to show that I don’t think I’m a ‘foreign agent’.” 

Yarosh says that after Open Media shut down, she and her colleagues discussed the possibility of launching a new venture, but couldn’t see a way forward. “[Mikhail] Khodorkovsky is ready to continue working with people, to ensure their relocation abroad. But this generous offer is still difficult to accept, because for me and my colleagues relocating isn’t an end in itself, ” the former editor-in-chief explains. “So far we have nothing to run from, and I hope this doesn’t change.” 

That said, Yarosh is sure that the Russian authorities will continue tightening the screws. “There certainly won’t be a return to honest media regulation after so many acts of injustice. It’s simply unimaginable,” she says. “Best case scenario, there will be fewer acts of injustice.” 

Nevertheless, Yarosh plans to stay in Russia. She fears working from abroad would make it more difficult to maintain clear boundaries between journalism and activism. And she’s not willing to compromise her professional principles. “All the journalists that I have been surrounded by since the beginning of my career are people who profess the utmost objectivity, independence, and interrogate all sides. But to many, these things already seem insignificant,” she tells Meduza. “They say that in these times, when such lawlessness takes place, it’s strange to do things with white gloves, that you have to make a choice. But I’m not prepared to make this choice. I’m thinking about maybe quitting journalism.”

‘Even if they start shooting journalists in the the street, The Insider will continue to work’

Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS

Roman Dobrokhotov, editor-in-chief of The Insider

The Insider was designated as a “foreign agent” on July 23, 2021 

According to Roman Dobrokhotov, the editor-in-chief of the investigative outlet The Insider, there’s “no doubt” that the Russian authorities are carrying out a full-blown campaign against all major independent media outlets. The Insider, which was designated as a “foreign agent” back in July, is just one victim of this clampdown. “And now only Mediazona, Novaya Gazeta, and Ekho Moskvy are left without a label,” he recalls. 

The way Dobrokhotov sees it, the Russian authorities seem bent on destroying independent media “as a business” — but each outlet is reacting in its own way and which ones will weather the storm most successfully remains to be seen. “For us it was more of a signal than a real blow. A signal that now they’re trying to get rid of us,” Dobrokhotov explains. “The main consequence is that we’ve begun actively preparing for being blocked, for the initiation of criminal cases, for fines, and so on. Journalists who, in principle, can work from abroad [...] have already moved to Europe. And all of our infrastructure is also being strengthened so that in the event of a block, we receive minimal damage in terms of a drop [in our] audience.” 

Dobrokhotov is understandably reluctant to reveal the details of how The Insider is preparing to fend off future attacks by the Russian authorities. But he assures Meduza that his team is determined to continue their investigative work no matter what. “Even if the Internet is cut off in Russia, like in North Korea, and they start shooting journalists in the streets, The Insider will continue to work all the same,” he says.

Unlike other Russian-language media outlets, The Insider has decided not to challenge its “foreign agent” designation in court. “We consider this decision legally void, and it has nothing to do with us,” Dobrokhotov explains, recalling that his publication is based in Latvia. “The Insider [has] a particular reputation, audience, and history. We aren’t very interested in what Putin is thinking up.” That said, he does acknowledge that reporting on certain topics has become riskier — for example, “foreign agents” accused of collecting information related to national security can now face felony charges.

In this context, the editor-in-chief expects the authorities to continue upping the pressure on the media, even after the State Duma elections in September. “Many say that ‘after the elections there will be some kind of thaw’ — I don’t understand what the elections have to do with this at all. There will be no elections. And don’t expect a thaw — only a harder line,” Dobrokhotov says. “And we will counterattack: hire more investigators, get into formats that will increase our audience in the regions, [and] we will conduct a new wave of crowdfunding.”

‘It’s definitely not the end’

Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of the Dozhd television channel

Dozhd was designated as a “foreign agent” on August 20, 2021

“It’s clear this decision was made based on political will,” says Dozhd editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko, when asked why the television channel was labeled a “foreign agent.” Less than two weeks after the designation, Dzyadko says his newsroom is still adapting to the “technical problems” that come with it: namely, how to add the mandatory “foreign agent” disclaimer to everything from tweets to live broadcasts. 

“These are the only consequences so far, and we’ll hope that they remain the only ones. But we understand that the main insidiousness of this law [...] is its informal consequences,” Dzyadko tells Meduza. “Here we can only hope that our advertisers and other partners will behave [responsibly].” 

Dozhd plans to challenge its “foreign agent” status in court, but the television channel has yet to receive any official documentation. “So far all we’ve seen is the line under number 35 in the registry on the Justice Ministry’s website. It’s still difficult to prepare an appeal, but as soon as the opportunity arises we will do so right away,” Dzyadko assures. 

In the meantime, Dzyadko says it’s business as usual for him and his team. “We plan to continue to work as we did [before], we don’t want to change our editorial policy or our plans,” he underscores, adding that the television channel has no intention of relocating abroad. And since Dozhd has long relied on viewer subscriptions and donations as its main sources of revenue, the network has no plans to change its business model either. “In recent days we’ve received tremendous support. The support and willingness to finance us comes from trust,” Dzyadko underscores. 

Dozhd’s editor-in-chief says he feels naive for believing that the authorities’ attacks on the free press were simply a pre-election strategy. “It seems this chosen policy towards civil society and society as a whole will continue and […] intensify,” Dzyadko tells Meduza. “I think that this isn’t the beginning — it started before, this is the continuation, and it’s definitely not the end.”

‘People will leave the profession themselves’

Roman Anin, editor-in-chief of iStories

The investigative outlet iStories was declared a “foreign agent” on August 20, 2021. Editor-in-chief Roman Anin was designated as a “foreign agent” that same day, along with five other iStories journalists: editors Roman Shleynov and Olesya Shmagun, and correspondents Dmitry Velikovsky, Irina Dolinina, and Alesya Marokhovskaya. 

The way iStories editor-in-chief Roman Anin sees it, there’s no “hidden logic” to the Russian Justice Ministry’s “foreign agent” designations. He says his newsroom had been preparing itself for this eventuality ever since Meduza was blacklisted back in April. “When it happened I had a complete lack of emotion — not good, not bad, nothing at all,” he recalls. Asked about his own “foreign agent” status, he says this didn’t come as a shock either: “Anger is probably the main emotion. But this isn’t from the moment we were recognized as ‘foreign agents,’ but from the moment of the general ban on the profession, which happened in Russia in 2021.”

The iStories newsroom is still grappling with how to comply with the bureaucratic requirements imposed on “foreign agents.” “[This law] is written in such a way that it’s impossible to follow it. If you make one wrong step left or right, then it’s fines and the publication being blocked, or criminal cases against [our] authors,” Anin explains. The editor-in-chief is also anticipating running into problems with sources, especially those working in law enforcement or other government agencies. “But for now we aren’t going to close and we will try to cope with these problems,” he stresses. 

According to Anin, Russia designating indie outlets as “foreign agents” hasn’t affected popular demand for “important stories.” “[Our] readership is smarter than the Kremlin thinks,” he tells Meduza. “All the respectable media outlets, all the respectable [people] around have become ‘foreign agents.’ It’s clear that the people who read us understand that this can’t be the case. And people really have nowhere else to read important stories, so we will try to satisfy this demand.”

Asked whether iStories plans to challenge its “foreign agent” designation in court, Anin says the outlet is talking this over with lawyers “without harboring any illusions or hopes.” The way he sees it, appealing against the decision in a Russian court would really only serve as a stepping stone to taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

As for iStories’s funding, Anin explains that the outlet has always relied on grants and donations from readers — and being blacklisted has actually brought them an influx of both financial and moral support. “From the moment we were recognized as ‘foreign agents’ readers’ donations have grown enormously,” the editor-in-chief tells Meduza. “[Before] we thought we could only cover part of our budget...Now we know that we can cover a lot more.” 

“When you’re under pressure from all sides, but you feel that people need you, that you’re doing work that people value, this is the main thing that keeps you afloat,” Anin adds.

For the time being, the majority of the iStories team is still working in Russia. The plan is to play things by ear, but Anin says his newsroom has no intention of changing its editorial focus. On the contrary, the plan is to double down and cover even bigger stories. 

Anin is convinced that the Russian authorities’ end goal is an effective “ban on the profession.” But he also believes the breadth of the crackdown is a sign that the free press is successfully putting pressure on the regime. “It’s clear that they don’t want to put all journalists in jail at this stage, because this will provoke a reaction from Western society and a reaction within the country,” the iStories editor-in-chief underscores. Instead, he predicts, the Russian authorities will continue using the laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” to ratchet up the pressure on journalists — “so that people leave the profession themselves.”

‘This genre isn’t mine’

Roman Badanin, former editor-in-chief of Proekt

Russia designated Proekt’s publisher, Project Media, Inc., as an “undesirable organization” on July 15, 2021. That same day, Roman Badanin and four other Proekt journalists were added to the registry of “foreign agents.” 

The investigative outlet Proekt cut ties with its publisher after the company, Project Media, Inc., was banned in Russia as an “undesirable organization.” Proekt promised to continue its journalistic work. But later, news broke that editor-in-chief Roman Badanin and his deputy Mikhail Rubin had left Russia for the United States and weren’t planning to return. In an interview with the New York Times in late August, Badanin revealed plans to start a new media outlet called “Agentstvo,” but didn’t disclose any details.

Meduza’s special correspondent Svetlana Reyter sent Badanin the same list of questions posed to the other editors-in-chief featured in this article, and asked him to talk about his new media venture. He replied as follows:

“You know, [Svetlana], I’ll opt out after all. It’s too easy to either say [nonsense] or give away something that I don’t want to give out yet. So don’t take it the wrong way. This genre, a conversation with the editor-in-chief, is somehow not mine.”

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We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Interviews by Andrey Pertsev, Liliya Yapparova, Anastasia Yakoreva, Alexandra Sivtsova, Svetlana Reyter, and Irina Kravtsova

Summary by Eilish Hart

Photos of Ivan Kolpakov, Tikhon Dzyadko, and Roman Badanin by Evgeny Feldman; Roman Dobrakhotov’s photo: Anton Novoderzhkin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA; Roman Anin’s photo is from his personal archive.

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