Life for Lyudmila Savitskaya changed dramatically at the end of 2020. Russian officials started to closely monitor the journalist’s articles, social media posts and even her spending habits.
The reason for the scrutiny: Savitskaya is one of a handful of individuals listed as a foreign agent by Russian authorities, because of her work with North.Realities. The regional news website is part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a fully independent network funded by U.S. Congress.
Now, Savitskaya, who is based in the northwestern city of Pskov, must report the source of every ruble in her family budget to authorities.
“I must account for all deposits into my bank account. For example, when my mother asks me to buy her medications and deposits money into my account for that purpose, I ask her to provide me with a document verifying that the transaction was, indeed, for medication,” Savitskaya told VOA’s Russian Service.
The Ministry of Justice is well informed about every aspect of her life, Savitskaya said, from what her family eats to the feminine hygiene products she uses.
“Every three months I have to submit an 86-page report, which consists of several sections. One section, for example, is devoted to what they call ‘political activity,’ as if the government does not differentiate between journalistic and political activity,” Savitskaya said.
“Apparently, the Ministry of Justice believes that I am recruiting someone or engaged in some kind of political activity with my journalism,” she said. “Maybe they think I work for Biden or foreign intelligence. They did not explain to me whose agent I am (supposed to be).”
Penalties for noncompliance
The consequences of violating Russia’s foreign agent legislation are severe.
In March, tougher sanctions for individuals were enforced. Those who fail to submit reports to the Ministry of Justice face up to five years in prison.
When the legislation was introduced in 2012, it was used mainly to suppress human rights work or those promoting and sharing details of civic information such as legal and voting rights.
The label was applied to dozens of groups, including the human rights organization Memorial, the nongovernmental research group Levada Center, and the Civic Assistance Committee, which helps refugees and migrants in Russia. The label, however, was not applied to media outlets.
That changed in 2017, when Russia amended legislation to include the term “foreign agent media” and created a list that included Radio Liberty, VOA and several of their projects, including the TV show Current Time.
Moscow says the amendments were a response to the U.S. government ordering the state-owned broadcaster RT America to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Under FARA, companies controlled by foreign governments must register with the U.S. Department of Justice and report activities, receipts and “informational material.”
But unlike FARA, Russia’s regulations require media outlets registered as foreign agents to mark all content with a notice.
Independent news outlets must include a 15-second warning at the start of all videos and label all web articles with a large disclaimer that says the content was created by an outlet that “performs the function of a foreign agent.”
Failure to comply results in fines and potentially criminal charges.
Since January, Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has hit Radio Liberty with 520 violations and fines totaling nearly $2.4 million.
“Gradually, this policy gained momentum,” said Andrei Shary, director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service. “This means an enormous amount of legal paperwork and actions, since it is 520 separate legal proceedings.”
Radio Liberty tried to comply with the requirements law, despite its objections.
“It is one thing to put a disclaimer and file reports to the Ministry of Justice, and quite another to mark every publication with the insulting statement, considering that on many platforms it means a significant loss of audience,” Shary said. “The requirement that every video on YouTube or other platforms must start with a 15-second warning effectively kills that material.”
Shary believes the process is political and aimed at pushing out or significantly limiting Radio Liberty. He noted that the increased anti-media campaign and use of the “foreign agent” label come ahead of elections scheduled for the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, later this year.
“It is a fight against the spread of ideas. Journalism is not a crime; therefore, persecution of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is persecution of the entire profession, not some technical measures, as the Russian authorities try to present it,” he said,
In April, Radio Liberty appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, saying that Russia’s actions violated the right to freedom of speech and opinion provided in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia ratified the convention when it joined the Council of Europe in 1996.
‘Like a snare’
Three other popular news websites that are known for independent reporting and have no connection to the U.S. are also listed as foreign agent media: the Latvia-based Meduza, VTimes and PASMI, a Russian outlet that covers corruption and has said it has no foreign funding.
Galina Timchenko, journalist and chief executive of Meduza, said she despairs at Moscow’s policy.
“If I am a conscientious person, I must give up. If I am not, then I must play by the rules, but I must be very careful,” Timchenko said. “This law, in my opinion, is like a snare: The more you fight it, the more you get entangled in it. So far, the situation looks rather hopeless.”
Meduza has become too prominent for officials to ignore, Timchenko said. “The country is becoming more and more closed, the government is looking for enemies everywhere, and it is finally our turn. Meduza is the largest independent publisher. Of course, we stand out like a sore thumb.”
Labeling an outlet as a “foreign agent” has obvious consequences, Timchenko said. “Experts would not want to talk to us, we are losing advertisers, and our employees can personally be designated as foreign agent media.”
In a statement last week, VTimes announced it was closing because the designation has resulted in experts refusing to speak with its reporters and advertisers pulling out. The news website was created by journalists who left Russia’s financial paper Vedomosti in 2020 in protest of a newly appointed editor-in-chief who they say was censoring content.
Officials, including Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and current deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, deny that the legislation is repressive. In a June 1 interview with Kommersant, Medvedev said Russia has “quite liberal legislation” and that the concept is “not our invention.”
But Maria Lipman, an expert at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, holds a different view.
“Since Soviet times, the word ‘agent’ has traditionally been associated with a ‘foreign intelligence agent’ in the Russian language. Moreover, the sinister nature of a ‘foreign intelligence agent’ was exacerbated by the Soviet spy mania that existed for decades. An ‘agent’ is someone who is infiltrating, sneaking around to do us harm, some horrible evil,” Lipman said.
She added that the label carries troubling connotations that send a message to audiences.
“An agent, in the Russian mind, is a person who represents foreign intelligence, who is working for a foreign country, who is in that sense a foreigner or a traitor, and what is being asked here is to agree with this.”
US lawmakers respond
U.S. lawmakers have highlighted the legislation’s impact on restricting or reducing foreign or critical media.
In a statement shared with VOA, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen said she stands with media who are targeted and will push for policies that hold President Vladimir Putin to account.
“The Kremlin’s effort to silence government opposition, whether by targeting members of the press or political rivals, must be called out at every opportunity,” she said. “Some of the most brutish behavior has been levied against journalists working to expose the truth, despite the danger they face by doing so. It shouldn’t have to be that way.”
Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul, a Republican, told VOA’s Russian Service earlier this year that President Joe Biden must raise the issue of media persecution during his personal conversations with Putin.
The two leaders are due to meet in Geneva on June 16.
By Danila Galperovich