Authorities in Russia have effectively banned investigative news outlet The Project after declaring it an “undesirable” organization in a major escalation of the Kremlin’s clampdown on independent media.
The July 15 move, part of a wider crackdown ahead of parliamentary elections in September on media that authorities view as hostile and foreign-backed, targets a media outlet that has published a series of well-researched, unflattering, and sometimes embarrassing investigations into Russia's ruling elite.
"The reason for this decision was the fact that its activities pose a threat to the foundations of the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation," the Prosecutor-General's Office said in a statement on July 15, mirroring the wording it has used in similar announcements against other independent media outlets.
Eight journalists were also labeled as “foreign agents,” including reporters from The Project, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Media news outlet in Russia, according to a July 15 update of a Justice Ministry registry.
Among those blacklisted were Roman Badanin, editor in chief of The Project, as well Yulia Yarosh, editor in chief of Open Media.
Last month, police in Moscow carried out searches at the homes of Badanin and other colleagues from The Project hours after it published a report questioning how Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev and his relatives acquired their wealth.
Also added to the list was Elizaveta Maetnaya, a Moscow-based freelancer for RFE/RL’s Russian Service, a move condemned by RFE/RL President Jamie Fly.
"RFE/RL deplores the Russian government’s decision to add our correspondent Elizaveta Maetnaya to its list of 'foreign agents.' The journalists who work for RFE/RL in Russia are proud Russians, seeking to use their skills to provide objective news and information to their fellow citizens. These escalating Kremlin attacks on independent voices only serve to deprive the Russian people of access to information at a critical moment in Russia’s history," Fly said in a statement.
Russia’s controversial “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.
The "undesirable" organization law, adopted in May 2015 and since updated, was part of a series of regulations pushed by the Kremlin that squeezed many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from foreign sources -- mainly from Europe and the United States.
In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL's Russian Service on the "foreign agents" list, along with six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services and Current Time. The Russian Service of VOA was also added to the list.
At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified again to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on the "foreign agent" list and to impose restrictions on them.
The designation of "undesirable organization" also hits The Project's funding hard as it won’t be able to crowdfund anymore since the law makes sending money to such an organization a criminal offence.
A Council of Europe (CoE) legal advisory body earlier this month criticized those amendments, saying they constitute “serious violations” of basic human rights and will have a “chilling effect” on political life inside the country.
In a report analyzing the amendments, published on July 6, the CoE's Venice Commission, which is composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, called on Russia to reject aspects of its "foreign agent" laws such as registration and reporting requirements, or alternatively revise “the entire body” of the legislation by narrowing the definition of a foreign agent.
Russia began to pass the legislation at the time when the largest protests against the rule of Vladimir Putin, who has served as either president or prime minister since 1999, was roiling the country.
The protests were sparked by what the opposition called rigged parliamentary elections in December 2011 and continued into the following year.
Putin blamed the wave of demonstrations on former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, claiming without evidence that she gave the opposition "a signal" to take to the streets.
With reporting by Interfax and Reuters