RIGA, Latvia – There is a certain type of American podcast where two young journalists investigate their own medium height issues, laugh a lot, interview their mothers.
Sonya Groysman, a 27-year-old Moscow journalist working for the independent news site Proekt, was a fan of the shows. So when she and her colleague Olga Churakova had problems, it seemed natural to start recording. But the issues they discussed in this familiar format are terrifying and existential. Last month, the two women were placed on the Russian government’s list of “foreign agents”, a designation that threatens to end their careers and, if they don’t fill out tons of paperwork and attach a 24-word warning. even to personal social media. posts, could mean hefty fines and jail time.
So their podcast is called “Hi, you are a foreign agent”. The first episode begins with Mrs. Groysman stumbling, laughing, through the disclaimer, which translates to: “THIS MEDIA / MATERIAL WAS CREATED AND / OR BROADCAST BY FOREIGN MEDIA PERFORMING THE DUTIES OF A FOREIGN AGENT AND / OR A RUSSIAN LEGAL AGENT. ENTITY PERFORMING THE DUTIES OF FOREIGN AGENT. In another episode, Ms Churakova unsuccessfully tries to get a job at a fast food restaurant chain specializing in blinis after explaining her new status.
Ms Groysman and her co-host aren’t asking listeners for money to support the podcast, she said, because she was concerned her use of something like the US crowdfunding platform Patreon might be misinterpreted. and held against it. The podcast, she said, is just their way of staying “on mission.”
In February, I wrote in this space about the unlikely flowering of Russian online journalism over the past year. In a country where, in essence, every major TV broadcaster is a highly produced pro-government analogue of Fox News, a number of digital outlets have delivered some fascinating scoops. They exposed the family wealth of President Vladimir V. Putin and reported on the agents who poisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
It was all part of a global wave of unwavering journalism in hostile places – the Afghan press was, until last week, the freest in its region – where autocrats increasingly view journalists as a threat . This summer, the Russian government tried to stop the tide by naming its most influential critics as “undesirable”, or as foreign agents, or both.
The founder of the Proekt news site, which translates to Project, has left the country. The independent economic news site VTimes has closed its doors. Last Friday, the government added TV Rain, long a leading independent media outlet, and the news site iStories to its list. And Ms. Groysman was arrested on Saturday protesting the move and detained for five hours; she recorded the meeting for the next episode of “Hi, You’re a Foreign Agent” next Tuesday.
The designation “foreign agent” has practical consequences, in particular by effectively removing business partners. It also requires journalists to attach the 24-word disclaimer to their work, even their personal social media posts. And it comes with echoes of a dark, Stalinist past.
“It immediately transfers you to the 1930s,” said Ivan Kolpakov, editor-in-chief of the Meduza news site, whose audience of over 10 million per month made it the most important target of the crackdown. “Yesterday you were a respectable reporter for the most popular independent media outlet. Today you are a marginal person. This means that many doors that were open immediately close right in front of your face. “
I visited Mr. Kolpakov in Meduza’s new office – an overcrowded no-lift apartment facing a courtyard on a side street near the center of the Latvian capital. The co-founder and general manager of the site, Galina Timchenko, personally pays the rent. I was there because, while many of the crackdowns are drawn from a new wave of small grant-funded online investigative points, Meduza is something different.
Founded in 2014 in Riga by journalists who had left another popular site after losing its independence, Meduza started out as a decidedly commercial and advertising company, a not-so-distant cousin of the American news sites that started around the same time.
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The nationalist activist who campaigned to label him a foreign agent, Aleksandr Ionov, had relied on thin evidence – a podcast that was sponsored by the Latvian tourism agency, for example – to claim that he was supported by strangers. With 1.3 million Twitter followers, nearly one million Instagram followers, and nearly 450,000 Telegram subscribers, Meduza had annual revenue of over $ 2.5 million before his appointment. , on April 23, as a foreign agent, Kolpakov said.
In one week, Meduza has lost more than 95% of its advertisers. Mr Kolpakov and Ms Timchenko told staff at a grim meeting on Zoom that they saw no real way forward. Journalists and editors were furious and demanded that they “fight to the end,” said Tatiana Ershova, editorial director of Meduza. So they launched an appeal of last resort, asking readers for money to “save Meduza”. To protect picky donors, they even accepted cryptocurrency and didn’t require supporters to leave email addresses, although many did.
The campaign also sought to transform the “foreign agent” label from a designation with sinister undertones into something readers might laugh at. “Become a summer agent,” an ad said. An Instagram post suggested that you tag your ‘crush on a foreign agent’.
The result is one of the most effective campaigns of its kind. Meduza has signed more than 90,000 donors. Journalists were amazed that they felt “really loved and needed people to want to read their stories,” said Katerina Abramova, director of communications for the site.
Mr Kolpakov declined to say how much money they collected, saying: “We believe that any detailed information can be used against us by the state. The publication was yet to cut costs by around 40 percent and moved from a bright new office to its current digs. But Meduza remains online – and while much of the staff have settled into some sort of exile in Riga, some of its reporters continue to report from Moscow, even though official sources have cited the designation of ‘”foreign agent” as a reason to stop talking to them.
The question now hanging over Meduza and other independent sites is whether the government will try to block access to it in Russia. “They will block us someday, probably as soon as possible,” said Roman Badanin, who was Ms Groysman’s boss at Proekt. By then, he added, he is in California, planning to relaunch Proekt under the name “Agenstvo”, in a nod to his precarious legal status.
Mr. Ionov, the nationalist activist who led the crackdown, said in an interview that he was “not upset” by the return of Meduza crowdfunding. In fact, he took some credit. “I didn’t even ask them to give me a percentage,” he said on Friday, shortly before posting an “Empire Strikes Back” meme on his Telegram channel to celebrate the latest additions to the growing list. ‘unwanted.
Mr Ionov, who founded the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia and defended the secession of California from the United States, said Russia’s law restricting critical media is simply his own version of the US recording law. foreign agents, which requires disclosure of persons acting on behalf of foreign governments. The US government pressured Russian state television station RT to register as a foreign agent in 2017, offering the Russian government a pretext to target both Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, backed by the US government, which is also challenging the designation in a Russian court. as a wider range of critics with weaker ties to any foreign government.
While most of the pressure on journalists in Russia appears to stem from fear from the government of jailed activist Mr. Navalny ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections, US inquiries into Russian influence over the Trump administration have also offered a useful pretext. On the ground, however, the main effect has been to make it harder for Russians to see their own country clearly and for journalists to report on it – or even stay there.
Meduza reporter Kristina Safonova filed a complaint this year that an officer hit her with a baton during a protest she was covering. After Meduza was labeled a foreign agent, she said, she learned that the police investigation would focus on her: she was practicing unlicensed journalism, an official told her, and Ms Safonova, 27, said. , could face 40 days in jail and a fine of approximately $ 4,000.
She left for Riga a few days later.
“I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly,” she said of her transformation from a young reporter to one of the many Russian journalists actually in exile.