Journalists work in the newsroom of the Dozhd TV channel in Moscow, Russia, on August 20, 2021. Russian authorities recently designated Dozhd and the website IStories as "foreign agents." (AP/Denis Kaminev)

Russian authorities add Dozhd, IStories to ‘foreign agents’ register

Stockholm, August 25, 2021 – Russian authorities should cease labeling news outlets as “foreign agents,” and should let all independent media companies work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On August 20, the Justice Ministry added Dozhd, the country’s biggest independent TV channel, and IStories fonds, the Latvia-based publisher of independent investigative news website IStories, as well as several current and former IStories employees, to its register of foreign agent media, according to news reports.

Dozhd editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko and IStories Chief Editor Roman Anin both told CPJ in phone interviews that they planned to appeal the designations in court, but said they were not optimistic that they would be reversed.

“Russian authorities are once again using the country’s ‘foreign agents’ register to smear independent news outlets and stifle reporting,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna, in New York. “Authorities should remove Dozhd, IStories, and all other outlets and journalists from the register of foreign agents, repeal the foreign agent legislation entirely, and allow the press to work freely.”

Anin and Dzyadko told CPJ that they are concerned that their outlets’ designation as foreign agents may be part of authorities’ larger plan to shut the outlets down. Anin said that he “expects they will try to shut us and our [independent media] colleagues down completely.”

The Justice Ministry’s foreign agents list includes Anin, IStories editors Roman Shleynov and Alesya Marokhovskaya, correspondents Irina Dolinina and Dmitriy Velikovskiy, and former editor Olesya Shmagun. Anin said he believes the designation is part of a campaign to restrict news coverage ahead of parliamentary elections in September.

In a statement released on August 20, IStories said that the outlet had never hidden the fact that it is registered abroad, and said it maintained this status to avoid turning into “lackeys of the authorities.”

Dzyadko told CPJ that Dozhd was a domestic Russian entity and had not received any official notification from the Ministry of Justice explaining its inclusion on the register.

He described the decision to target Dozhd as “absolutely political.”

Yesterday, the Justice Ministry issued a statement accusing Dozhd of “distributing and citing” materials produced by entities on the foreign agents list, and receiving foreign financing for doing so; it also alleged that Dozhd had received 130,000 euros (US$153,000) from the European Commission, and had received “indirect” foreign financing through local Russian foundations.

Dzyadko told CPJ that the company had received remuneration from Russian foundations, but did not know whether those foundations had received funds from abroad.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Dzyadko wrote that Dozhd’s contract with the European Commission was no secret, and that similar contracts had been signed by other major Russian media outlets. He also linked to a list by state media regulator Roskomnadzor showing that dozens of Russian media outlets, including state-owned agency TASS and state-funded broadcaster RT, had received money from abroad.

Since April, Russian authorities have designated several major independent media outlets and journalists as foreign agents, including Meduza, VTimes, and The Insider, and declared the investigative outlet Proekt “undesirable,” as CPJ has documented.

Separately, on August 21, the Justice Ministry added Fourth Sector, an independent freelance journalists’ association in the Perm region, to its register of foreign agents, according to news reports. The association had already announced its closure in July following the start of an unscheduled inspection by the Justice Ministry, those reports said.

Dzyadko said that the foreign agent designation means Dozhd will likely lose sponsors because “no one wants to be associated with a foreign agent.”

Galina Timchenko, general director of the news website Meduza, which was labeled a foreign agent in April, told Dozhd that her outlet had lost 38 percent of its revenue due to sponsor flight following the designation. VTimes announced its closure shortly after its designation in May, citing the destruction of its advertising-based business model.

Russia’s foreign agents legislation obliges outlets and individuals to mark their publications and social media posts as produced by a foreign agent, and to submit to increased auditing demands. Serious or repeat violations of the law can be punished by fines of up to five million rubles (US$67,450) or up to two years in prison, according to the Russian administrative and criminal codes.

Previously, on August 5, independent news websites Open Media and MBKh, both funded by the Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, announced that they were ceasing operations, citing concerns for the safety of their staff, after Roskomnadzor blocked access to their websites within Russia for their alleged ties to Khodorkovskiy’s Open Russia and Open Russia Civic Movement organizations, both of which have been designated as “undesirable” by the government, according to news reports. Undefined “participation” in the activities of an undesirable organization can be punished by up to four years in prison under Russia’s criminal code.

CPJ emailed the Justice Ministry and Roskomnadzor for comment, but did not receive any replies.

CPJ is investigating news reports that Russian authorities on August 21 briefly detained at least eight journalists at the Meshchanskiy district police station in Moscow for protesting the addition of Dozhd and IStories to the foreign agents register.

Those reports state that authorities charged seven of them with violating protest regulations, an offense subject to a fine of up to 20,000 rubles (US$270), and released all of the suspects after several hours in detention, except for Ilya Vasyunin, a correspondent at state-funded broadcaster RT and former staff member at Dozhd, who was held at the station for two nights and then released without charge.

Vasyunin agreed to attend questioning at a later date, those reports said.

CPJ emailed the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia for comment, but did not immediately receive any reply.