Life for Lyudmila Savitskaya changed dramatically at the end of 2020. Russian officials have been closely monitoring the journalist’s articles, social media posts and even her spending habits.
The reason for the investigation: Savitskaya is one of a handful of individuals Listed as a Russian government foreign agent because of her work with North. Realities. The local news site is part of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, a completely independent network funded by the US Congress.
Now Savitskaya, who is in the northwestern city of Pskov, must report the source of every ruble in her family budget to the authorities.
“I have to set off all deposits in my bank account. For example, if my mother asks me to buy medicine for her and deposit money in my account, I ask her to give me a document confirming 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. For example, one section is devoted to what they call ‘political activity’, as if the government does not distinguish between journalistic and political activities,” Savitskaya said.
“Apparently the Ministry of Justice believes that I am recruiting someone or engaging 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).”
Fines for non-compliance
The consequences of violating Russian law for foreign agencies are dire.
In March, stricter sanctions were imposed on individuals. Those who do not submit reports to the Ministry of Justice should be sentenced to up to five years in prison.
When the legislation was introduced in 2012, it was primarily used to suppress human rights work or the promotion and sharing of details of civil information such as legal and voting rights.
The label has been applied to dozens of groups, including the human rights organization Memorial, the non-governmental research group Levada Center, and the Civilian Relief Committee, which helps refugees and migrants in Russia. However, the label was not applied to media channels.
That changed in 2017 when Russia amended legislation to include the term ‘foreign agent media’ and compiled a list that includes Radio Liberty, VOA and several of their projects, including the TV show Current Time.
Under FARA, foreign-controlled companies must register with the U.S. Department of Justice and report activities, receipts, and ‘information materials.’
But unlike FARA, Russia’s regulations require media registered as foreign agents to mark all content with a notice.
Independent newspapers should include a 15-second warning at the beginning of all videos and label all web articles with a large disclaimer stating that the content was created by a store that ‘performs the function of a foreign agent’.
Failure to comply results in fines and potentially criminal charges.
Since January, Russian 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, as these are 520 separate lawsuits.”
Radio Liberty, despite its objections, tried to comply with the requirements.
“It’s one thing to post an indemnity and submit reports to the Ministry of Justice, and another thing to mark every publication with the insulting statement, as it means a significant loss of audience on many platforms, said Shary. “The requirement that every video on YouTube or other platforms start with a 15-second alert effectively kills that material.”
Shary believes the process is political and aims to push or significantly curtail Radio Liberty. He noted that the increased anti-media campaign and the use of the label ‘foreign agent’ precede the elections planned for the State Duma, the Russian lower house of parliament, later this year.
“It is a struggle against the spread of ideas. Journalism is not a crime; therefore, the prosecution of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty is prosecution of the whole profession, not technical measures, as the Russian authorities try to present it,” he said. 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 in violation of 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 sites that are known for independent reporting and have no connection with the US are also mentioned as media for foreign agencies: the Latvian Meduza, VTimes and PASMI, a Russian office that covers corruption and said that they has no foreign financing.
Galina Timchenko, journalist and CEO of Meduza, said she despaired of Moscow’s policies.
“If I’m a conscientious person, I have to give up. If I do not, I have to play by the rules, but I have to be very careful,” Timchenko said. “In my opinion, this law is like a trap: the more you fight against it, the more you get entangled in it. So far, the situation seems rather hopeless.”
Medchen has become too prominent to ignore officials, Timchenko said. “The country is becoming more and more closed, the government is looking for enemies everywhere and it is ultimately our turn. Meduza is the largest independent publisher. Of course we fall out like a sore thumb.”
Timchenko said that a foreign agent is defined as a foreign agent. “Experts do not want to talk to us, we are losing advertisers and our employees can be personally identified as foreign agent media.”
In a statement last week, VTimes announced that it closes because the designation has led experts to refuse to talk to its reporters and advertisers. The news site was created by journalists leaving Russia’s financial article Vedomosti in 2020 in protest against a newly appointed editor – in – chief censoring content.
Officials, including Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and current deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, deny the legislation is “oppressive”. In a June 1 interview with Kommersant, Medvedev said that Russia has ‘fairly liberal legislation’ and that the concept ‘is not our invention’.
But Maria Lipman, an expert on the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, is of the opinion.
“Since the Soviet era, 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’ has been exacerbated by the Soviet spy mania that has prevailed for decades. “An ‘agent’ is someone who infiltrates, sneaks around to do us harm, a terrible evil,” Lipman said.
She added that the label contains worrying connotations that send a message to the public.
” An agent in the Russian mind is a person who represents foreign intelligence, who works for a foreign country, who in that sense is a stranger or a traitor, and who is asked here to be with this voice.’
US lawmakers respond
U.S. lawmakers have highlighted the impact of the legislation on restricting or reducing foreign or critical media.
In a statement shared with VOA, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen said she stands with the media being targeted and will campaign for policies that hold President Vladimir Putin accountable.
“The Kremlin’s attempt to silence the government’s opposition, whether by targeting press members or political rivals, must be called out at every opportunity,” she said. “Some of the most brutal behaviors have been charged against journalists who work to uncover the truth, despite the danger they pose. It does not have to be that way.”
House of Representatives committee member Michael McCaul, a Republican, told VOA’s Russian service earlier this year that President Joe Biden should raise the issue of media persecution during his personal talks with Putin.
The two leaders will meet in Geneva on June 16.