Russia’s “International Brokers” regulation targets journalists, activists, and even peculiar residents: NPR
Roman Dobrokhotov, editor-in-chief of The Insider, walks surrounded by police officers and journalists in Moscow on Wednesday. The police ransacked his home after being labeled a “foreign agent” by the investigative news agency. Last week it became the 16th media company to be included in the Russian Ministry of Justice’s list of foreign agents. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP Hide caption
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
MOSCOW – Darya Apakhonchich never considered herself a foreign agent.
She taught Russian to refugees in her hometown of St. Petersburg and took part in street performances against militarism and violence against women. The activism of Apakhonchich’s art group was quirky and local, and their performances typically received a few hundred views on YouTube.
“It is not a crime to teach Russian as a foreign language and get paid to do so,” Apakhonchich says. “And it is not a crime to be active and go to demonstrations, especially in view of the Russian Constitution.”
But the Russian authorities treated her like a criminal.
In December, the 36-year-old mother of two discovered that the Justice Department had put her on a list of “foreign media agents” alongside media such as the US government-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Apakhonchich’s offenses were paid for by organizations such as St. Petersburg State University’s French College and posted her political views on social media.
A month after she was on the list, Apakhonchich said, police saw open her front door early one Sunday morning, confiscated her family’s electronic devices and spent seven hours searching her home for “extremist” material.
A self-portrait by Darya Apakhonchich, with the writing on her face and a female figure that says: “Not just a body, but a person, person, person, person, person.” She took the photo in support of Russian artist and LGBTQ activist Yulia Tsvetkova, who is being prosecuted for distributing pornography through her art. Darya Apakhonchich hide caption
Russia’s 2012 Foreign Agents Act originally provided for non-governmental organizations that received grants from abroad. The law has since been changed to reach not only media organizations, but also individual journalists, YouTube bloggers and practically everyone else who receives money from abroad and expresses a political opinion.
After receiving the designation, they must mark everything they post, including social media posts, as the work of a foreign agent and submit quarterly financial reports to the Justice Department. Accounting errors and non-compliance can result in fines and even imprisonment.
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law that extends the legal definition of who can be considered a foreign agent. Since December, the Justice Ministry has labeled more than a dozen Russian citizens, including Apakhonchich and Lev Ponomaryov, a human rights activist for more than 30 years.
After the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny earlier this year, the Kremlin used the law on foreign agents to prosecute journalists and news organizations critical of the government. Last week, investigative news site The Insider was named the 16th media agency on the Justice Department’s list of foreign agents.
VTimes, an independent business news site, shut down in June and said its classification as a foreign agent had destroyed its business model. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty faces a fine of over $ 3 million for refusing to label its content as produced by a “foreign agent”.
Meduza, a popular independent news site, ran into trouble after being listed as a foreign agent and blacklisted by the Justice Department in April. In 2014, opposition Russian journalists established the site in neighboring Latvia to protect it from Kremlin pressure. Meduza later branched out into podcasts and an English language version.
“It’s harder to talk to people now because a lot of people who would like to talk to us are now wary of being associated with a ‘foreign agent’ which is a huge obstacle,” says Alexey Kovalyov, editor the investigation at Meduza.
After the name Meduza became a “toxic brand,” says Kovalyov, advertisers fled. A crowdfunding drive has raised donations from 96,000 contributors that will keep the website afloat for at least a few more months.
“Nobody really knows what happens after that, because we don’t know how sustainable this crowdfunding model is,” says Kowaljow.
The Kremlin denies that the Foreign Agents Act is censorship, and Putin often likened it to the US Foreign Agents Act. The laws may be similar on paper, but human rights groups say the Russian authorities use the term “foreign agent” to suppress dissent.
“Since 2012, the Russian government has been using the ‘Foreign Agents’ law to demonize independent groups that accept foreign funds and engage in public lobbying, especially those that question government policies and actions in any way,” said Human Rights Watch in November. “In Russia, the term ‘foreign agent’ has a strong negative connotation, similar to ‘traitor’.”
When Russian law came up at a meeting of the Kremlin Human Rights Council in December, Putin recalled the case of Maria Butina, a Russian national who spent more than a year in US detention after being indicted as unregistered having acted foreign agent. Putin told the council that it was necessary for Russia to designate individuals as foreign agents because “some people are simply inventing new ways to get money from abroad for their activities”.
Putin told NBC News in June that many “so-called civil society” organizations are being funded and trained from abroad. “To prevent this kind of interference in our internal affairs, we make appropriate decisions and pass appropriate laws,” he said.
For the Russian authorities, Putin’s hard line is a green light to crack down on civil society.
“They perceive civil society as ‘who pays the whistler, sets the tone,'” says Maxim Trudolyubov, editor at Meduza and senior advisor to the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC for the public Reason for everything that goes wrong comes from the West, from abroad. “
Trudolyubov says Putin must make threats to keep power. But the “totalitarian instinct” behind the foreign agent law in the Kremlin, he says, collides with the complex, diverse society that Russia has become.
“Putin himself belongs to a generation that remembers the Soviet Union very well, and he wants to be in control,” says Trudolyubov. “He is very nervous to see that he cannot achieve this type of control and that there are parts of society that reject him.”
The activist and teacher Apakhonchich represents a new generation of Russians. After the police raid her home, she and her children moved to neighboring Georgia to protect her family. She says her appointment as a foreign media agent sent a message.
“I think I was chosen to intimidate people like me who work with foreign organizations,” she says.
In May, a St. Petersburg court upheld their blacklist. But Apakhonchich refuses to be silent.
“Maybe I could have just been a mother again,” she says. “But I understand that people are still subject to repression even if they don’t say anything, don’t give interviews and hope that by sitting still everything will be fine.”