People stand outside the headquarters of Russia's Justice Ministry in Moscow on December 4, 2017. The ministry recently labeled the news outlets Mediazona and OVD-Info as "foreign agents." (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

Russia labels Mediazona, OVD-Info, and 2 journalists as ‘foreign agents’

Vilnius, Lithuania, September 30, 2021 – Russian authorities should allow the independent news outlets Mediazona and OVD-Info to work freely and without government harassment, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Yesterday, the Russian Justice Ministry expanded its lists of so-called “foreign agents,” adding the independent news website Mediazona, the human-rights news website OVD-Info, and two journalists—Mediazona publisher Pyotr  Verzilov and chief editor Sergei Smirnov—according to news reports

Authorities added Mediazona and its journalists to the mass media foreign agents list, and added OVD-Info to a list of public associations that operate as foreign agents.

“By adding Mediazona and OVD-Info to its so-called foreign agents list, Russian authorities continue harassing the last remaining independent media outlets in the country,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should stop their crackdown on the media and scrap the foreign agents register, which only serves to obstruct and stifle independent journalists.”

Russia’s foreign agent legislation, initially adopted in 2012 and amended several times to include media outlets and journalists, requires organizations receiving money from abroad to submit to audits, be labeled as foreign agents when cited in media reports, include information on every publication identifying its source as produced by a foreign agent, and submit to a variety of other restrictions. Failure to comply can result in fines.

Mediazona is registered in Russia but accepts donations from around the world, and the Russian government alleges that it is involved in political activities within the country, according to reports. OVD-Info is supported by the nongovernmental organization Memorial, and the outlet’s media coordinator, Konstantin Fomin, told CPJ via phone that about 10 percent of Memorials’ funding comes as grants from abroad.

OVD-Info frequently covers protests and activism in Russia, and has offered legal support to people detained at rallies, according to CPJ’s review of its website. Fomin, told CPJ that “Russia will be left without NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and without independent media” if the foreign agent list continues to expand. 

OVD-Info co-founder Grigory Okhotin told the Associated Press that the move was part of a “pressure campaign against independent organizations and the media.”

Mediazona covers daily news with a focus on the judicial system and prisoners’ rights, according to CPJ’s review of its content. In a statement published yesterday, the outlet said that the foreign agent label would “greatly complicate our work and, perhaps, put Mediazona on the brink of survival” because of the stigma attached to such outlets.

Last month, in the run-up to the September parliamentary elections, authorities 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 the foreign agents register, as CPJ documented at the time.

When CPJ called Russia’s Ministry of Justice, the person who answered the phone said the ministry did not have any comment on the classifications.