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Russian Media Outlet VTimes Closes As 'Foreign Agent' Designation 'Destroys' Business

Graffiti reading "Foreign [intelligence] agent. Love USA" was written at the entrance to the offices of human rights group Memorial in central Moscow.
Graffiti reading "Foreign [intelligence] agent. Love USA" was written at the entrance to the offices of human rights group Memorial in central Moscow.

MOSCOW -- Online business media outlet VTimes has announced its closure after the Russian Justice Ministry added it to the registry of "foreign agents" last month, a move the site says "destroyed" its business.

The website's editors said in a statement on June 3 that the information portal will halt its operations as of June 12 because they do not want to work "as a niche opposition political media" outlet that would create threatening situations for its employees.

They added that the "foreign agent" designation had scared away its partners, ruined its business, and made it harder to report news.

Activists have warned the legislation was targeted at independent media such as VTimes and would seriously impact them because of its "restrictive" nature that "demonizes independent groups."

VTimes is an information and analytical site created in 2020 by journalists who left Vedomosti, a top Russian business newspaper, after it was sold last year to a new owner.

The journalists accused the editor in chief brought in by the new owner, Ivan Yeryomin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, of introducing pro-Kremlin censorship.

"The foreign-agent label has destroyed the VTimes business model, and we created the outlet as a business project. Advertisers and partners do not understand how to cooperate with 'a foreign agent,' and we cannot judge them for that," the statement says, adding that businessmen, analysts, and officials hesitated to deal with any outlet on the "foreign agents" registry.

"We have realized by our own experience that Russian authorities do not need a professional and independent media," the statement says, emphasizing that VTimes was created as "a platform for the free exchange of constructive find positive examples and ideas for the development of businesses and society."

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.

Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media, including RFE/RL's Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time, a network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified again to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on the list and to impose restrictions on them.

Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor has accused RFE/RL of hundreds of violations of the labeling rules under the "foreign agent" law.

RFE/RL, which faces a raft of fines that could total as much as $3.4 million, has called the penalties "a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation," while the U.S. State Department has described them as "intolerable."