Russian news site to close over ‘foreign agent’ designation

VTimes, one of country’s last remaining independent media outlets, to shut this month

A Russian business newspaper that has been targeted as a foreign agent has said it is shutting down because of fears that its journalists could be prosecuted, writing that the Russian government “does not need professional and uncontrolled media”.

VTimes, founded by reporters fleeing censorship in Russia’s business media, said it would close down three weeks after it was put on a list of foreign agents that critics have called a death sentence for independent media outlets.

In a letter to readers, the editors wrote: “In every scenario there is a risk to our employees of criminal prosecution and possible imprisonment. But the reason for our decision was not simply or so much the fear of prosecution for us honestly performing our professional duties … We have seen from our own example: the government does not need professional or uncontrolled media.”

The decision came as Russia holds its St Petersburg International Economic Forum, a conference usually attended by Vladimir Putin and designed to showcase the country’s global business reach. In recent years it has also served to chart Russia’s growing isolation due to a simmering conflict with the west.

Russia has increased pressure on opposition and independent media outlets in a growing crackdown that has had a chilling effect on the industry and on the advertisers who make publications financially viable. Earlier this week, a Russian news aggregator that regularly covered the opposition said it was closing down because of concerns among advertisers and of possible legal troubles, accusing the government of trying to “clean up” coverage of Russia’s recent history.

VTimes was founded by editors and reporters who left the business newspaper Vedomosti after a new editor-in-chief signalled he would clamp down on criticism of Putin and prevent the use of independent polling.

VTimes was a surprising addition to Russia’s list of foreign agents among media, which had mainly been populated by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and its various regional and digital media agencies. RFE/RL have refused to comply with the government’s requirements to label their text and video content, and are facing an estimated $2.4m (£1.7m) in fines and possible closure. Police have raided the agency multiple times in the last month, and some staff and equipment have been moved abroad in case the outlets are shut down.

This year, Russia has extended its crackdown to new digital media founded by refugees from traditional Russian media that has increasingly been brought under the Kremlin’s control.

Earlier this year, Meduza, a Russian-language news website based in Latvia, was also declared a foreign agent, prompting an editor to write that the government’s goal was to “kill Meduza” by driving away its advertisers.

In compliance with the rules for foreign agents, Meduza began labelling its articles with a warning in capital letters that the content was produced by a foreign agent.

VTimes had done the same as a stopgap, but said ultimately its business model would not be sustainable as a foreign agent.

“In essence, VTimes is being pushed into the niche of opposition political media,” the website’s staff wrote. “But we had envisioned and created a different kind of media. That is why we have decided to close VTimes on 12 June, Russia’s Independence Day.”

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