Russia's Justice Ministry is seen in Moscow on December 4, 2017. The ministry recently expanded its list of so-called foreign agents, adding other news outlets and journalists. (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

Russia labels Bellingcat, other independent outlets and journalists as ‘foreign agents’

Vilnius, Lithuania, October 12, 2021 – Russian authorities should stop labeling journalists and media outlets as “foreign agents” and should allow the press to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On October 8, following the announcement that Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Russian Ministry of Justice added eight journalists as well as the Netherlands-based investigative outlet Bellingcat; MEMO, the publisher of the Caucasus-focused independent news website Kavkazsky Uzel; and the U.S.-based Mason GES Anonymous Foundation, which owns the news website MNews, to its list of foreign agents, according to news reports and the list of agents published by the ministry.

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 being produced by a foreign agent, and submit to a variety of other restrictions. Failure to comply can result in fines and prison terms.

“Russian authorities’ decision to label MNews, Kavkazsky Uzel, Bellingcat, and multiple journalists as ‘foreign agents’ on the same day that journalist Dmitry Muratov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize shows the lengths authorities will go to harass and censor the press,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Russia’s foreign agent law should be repealed at once; it only serves to silence the few remaining independent voices in the country.”

Bellingcat has recently covered sensitive political issues, including Russian intelligence operations targeting opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Kavkazsky Uzel covers news in the Caucasus, including human rights violations, and MNews critically covers news in Russia and former Soviet republics. 

Kavkazkiy Uzel was founded by the nongovernmental organization Memorial, according to its website. In September, Memorial’s media coordinator, Konstantin Fomin, told CPJ that about 10 percent of Memorial’s funding comes as grants from abroad.

The journalists added to the list include Danil Sotnikov with the independent news channel Dozhd TV; BBC Russian correspondent Andrei Zakharov; and freelance correspondents for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Tatyana Voltskaya, Yekaterina Klepikovskaya, Yelena Solovyova, Yelizaveta Surnacheva, and Roman Perl, according to news reports and the ministry’s foreign agents list.

The Justice Ministry also added Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defense Center, a local group that provides journalists and media outlets with legal aid, to the list, according to those sources. 

Arapova told CPJ via phone that the Mass Media Defense Center itself was already registered as a foreign agent, “so it was only a matter of time for the authorities to include me personally.”

“Now, I will have to report to the Justice Ministry about my income and put a mark that I am a ‘foreign agent’ on every word I write publicly,” she said.

Voltskaya, the RFE/RL correspondent, told CPJ via phone that the designation was “bad, but I was expecting it.” 

“The next step might be detaining ‘foreign agents,’ and I think sooner or later it will happen. I have no doubts,” she added.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly condemned the decision in a statement to the broadcaster.

Previously, on May 14, Russian authorities froze RFE/RL’s bank accounts for allegedly failing to pay fines issued for noncompliance with the foreign agents law, as CPJ documented at the time. RFE/RL has filed a suit with the European Court of Human Rights over the law and the fines, reports said.

The foreign agents register includes 85 people and outlets, 68 of which have been added since the beginning of 2021.

When CPJ called Russian Ministry of Justice, an unidentified official answered and said, “this is the law and there will be no comments.”