Russian police wearing protective facemasks patrols at Manezhnaya Square in downtown Moscow on July 7, 2021. Russian police raided the home of journalist Roman Dobrokhotov after authorities placed his outlet, The Insider, on a foreign agents registry. (AFP/ Alexander Nemenov)

Russian authorities label The Insider a ‘foreign agent,’ search editor’s home

Stockholm, August 3, 2021 – Russian authorities should remove The Insider and all other media organizations and journalists from the country’s register of foreign agents and stop harassing the outlet’s editor-in-chief Roman Dobrokhotov, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On July 23, the Russian Justice Ministry added independent Latvia-based investigative news site The Insider and five journalists at other independent outlets to its foreign agent register, according to news reports and the register. According to Russian law, media outlets and individuals who receive overseas funding are required to label their publications and social media postings as by “foreign agents,” and to provide the government with detailed reports on their finances and activities.

Individual journalists or representatives of media outlets found to have shirked the requirements three different times after their inclusion on the list can face punishment of up to two years in prison, according to the Russian criminal code.

Five days later, on the morning of July 28, police searched the Moscow homes of Dobrokhotov and his parents and questioned Dobrokhotov for an hour as a witness in a criminal defamation case at the Akademicheskiy District Police Department, before releasing him without charge, according to news reports and Dobrokhotov, who spoke to CPJ by telephone.

The police confiscated his cell phones, laptop, and tablets, as well as his passports, which prevented him from travelling abroad as he had planned to do the day of the raid, he told CPJ. He said the items have not been returned.

“Russian authorities have once again demonstrated how the country’s unjust foreign agent law is abused to clamp down on critical reporting,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna, in New York. “Authorities must retract their designation of The Insider and five independent journalists as ‘foreign agents,’ return all confiscated equipment and documents to Roman Dobrokhotov, and refrain from harassing representatives of the media and their families.”

Though Russian authorities have made no official statement about the raids, Dobrokhotov confirmed reports that the raids were conducted as part of a criminal defamation investigation into comments posted on his Twitter account last November referencing The Insider‘s investigation alleging that Dutch citizen Max van der Werff received money from Russian military intelligence to spread disinformation denying Russia’s alleged role in the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

Van der Werff’s lawyer Stalina Gurevich has confirmed that she filed a complaint on behalf of her client over the tweet, according to reports. CPJ contacted van der Werff via messaging app for comment, but did not immediately receive a reply.

Dobrokhotov told CPJ that while he was questioned as a witness in this case, he believes he could be charged with criminal defamation under Article 128.1 Part 2 of the Russian criminal code. If charged, he would be liable to maximum penalties valid at the time of the alleged offense of one million rubles (US$13,713) or 240 hours of correctional labor.

Dobrokhotov told CPJ he believes the case is just a pretext for the authorities to search his home and confiscate his devices in order to find material for further measures against The Insider or gain access to his sources.

In recent years, The Insider has collaborated with the independent investigative outlet Bellingcat and other European publications on a series of high-profile investigations into alleged misdeeds involving Russian authorities, including the poisoning of former military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, and the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

Dobrokhotov told CPJ that he did not think The Insider’s designation as a foreign agent was connected to any specific journalistic investigations, saying it was part of an ongoing “wave of attacks” on investigative media outlets.

He added that The Insider intends to continue working as normal and has no plans to comply with the requirement to label its material.

On July 23, the Justice Ministry also added five journalists to the foreign agents register: Sofia Groisman, a writer at the banned investigative news site Proekt, and the outlet’s deputy chief editor Mikhail Rubin; Yulia Apukhtina, editor of the independent news site Drugoy Gorod, and Ilya Rozhdestvenskiy, a correspondent with Estonia-based news platform Open Media, both of whom previously worked with Proekt; and Aleksei Posternak, a contributor to U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s regional news website Sibir.realii, according to reports.

CPJ emailed the Russian Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry for comment, but did not receive any reply.

Russian authorities last week declared Proekt “undesirable,” therefore banning it, and added five of its staff to the foreign agents list, as CPJ documented at the time.