Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has warned of the "gradual disappearance" of independent media in Russia, and urged President Vladimir Putin to repeal a "draconian 'foreign agents' law" that has been used to target RFE/RL and other news outlets.
In a statement issued on June 16, the Paris-based media watchdog lists the demise of the Russia-based VTimes and risks to other media outlets such as the Latvian-based Meduza.
"Only a handful of independent media outlets are managing to survive the growing pressure from the authorities," it says, citing "intimidation attempts" against TV Dozhd, Fortanga and Chernovik in the North Caucasus, as well as the Kaliningrad-based Novye Kolesa.
"The gradual disappearance of independent outlets from the Russian media landscape in the past few years and the recent acceleration of this process are very disturbing," said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
"We urge Vladimir Putin and the Russian justice ministry to immediately repeal the 'foreign agents' law, which is undermining media pluralism, throttling independent media and slowly killing them off."
Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires NGOs 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.
More recent modifications have targeted foreign-funded media, including multiple RFE/RL services, and individual journalists.
RSF cited RFE/RL Russian Service's Lyudmila Savitskaya and Sergei Markelov as among the first to be ordered to register as "foreign agents," related fines, and the freezing of RFE/RL bank accounts in Russia for refusing to comply with the strictures.
RFE/RL has called the fines "a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation."
The labeling of "foreign agents" has been interpreted by many civil society activists as another tool for the Kremlin to intimidate Russia's political opposition, especially with parliamentary elections looming in September and the ruling United Russia party slumping in opinion polls.
"The Russian government has worked hard to destabilize media outlets in recent years," RSF said, with "around 20 draconian laws targeting both traditional and online media" since major anti-Putin demonstrations eight years ago.
The watchdog said the Russian state media regulator, Roskomnadzor, which it calls "a digital press freedom predator,” has become “increasingly intrusive since first establishing a blacklist of websites in 2012."