Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov is seen in Moscow on March 24, 2021. Authorities recently fined Muratov and others for allegedly violating the country's foreign agent law. (AFP/Natalia Kolesnikova)

Russian Nobel Prize winner Dmitry Muratov fined under foreign agent law

Vilnius, Lithuania, November 19, 2021 — Russian authorities should stop harassing journalist Dmitry Muratov and cease labelling news outlets and members of the press as “foreign agents,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Muratov and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa were jointly awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize in October.

On November 11, the Basmanny District Court of Moscow fined the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Muratov, its editor-in-chief, for allegedly failing to meet disclosure requirements under the country’s foreign agent law, according to news reports and court records published online.

Authorities allege that Novaya Gazeta covered two groups—opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and a labor group formerly affiliated with Navalny, the Doctor’s Alliance—without properly noting that the Ministry of Justice had labeled both groups as foreign agents, according to those sources.

The court imposed six fines, totaling 120,000 rubles (US$1,636) for Novaya Gazeta and 12,000 rubles (US$163) for Muratov, for “abusing freedom of information” and disseminating foreign agent material without proper disclosures, those news reports said.

Novaya Gazeta was not notified about the court hearing, and the fines were issued without any representative of the newspaper present, those reports said. The outlet and Muratov are eligible to appeal the fines.

“Russian authorities’ fines levelled against Novaya Gazeta and journalist Dmitry Muratov, as well as other members of the press and news outlets throughout the country, show how the country’s foreign agent legislation is mainly a tool to harass and stifle the media,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “The foreign agent law should be repealed as soon as possible, and authorities must stop using draconian legal mechanisms to target the press.”

When CPJ called the Basmanny District Court, an official on duty said that the court “does not provide and will not provide any comments.”

Separately, on November 16, the Justice Ministry opened five cases investigating Pyotr Kanayev, editor-in-chief of the business news outlet RBK, for allegedly failing to label foreign agent material cited in his outlet’s work, according to news reports, which said he is due in court on December 3.

On November 17, Russian state media monitor Roskomnadzor filed suit in a Moscow court seeking a fine of 500,000 rubles ($6,800) from the news website The Insider for failing to disclose that it had been labeled as a foreign agent, news reports said. Authorities labeled The Insider as a foreign agent in June, as CPJ documented at the time. No court date has been set, those reports said. 

Yesterday, the Moscow City Court rejected freelance journalist and Novaya Gazeta contributor Sergey Markelov’s appeal of his own classification as a foreign agent, news reports said. 

CPJ called Roskomnadzor and the Moscow City Court for comment, but no one answered. When CPJ called the Ministry of Justice, an official said the authorities were simply applying the law and declined to comment further. 

CPJ called and emailed Novaya Gazeta, but did not immediately receive any reply. 

Igor Iasine, co-director of the Russian Professional Union of Journalists and Media Workers, an independent trade group, told CPJ via messaging app that the foreign agent regulations “are not proper laws, but tools to pressure independent journalism. These tools are used against those whom authorities do not like.” 

According to Russia’s foreign-agent legislation, organizations labeled as such are obliged to mark all their public statements with disclosures noting that they were produced by a foreign agent. Publications must also specify that groups or individuals are foreign agents whenever referencing them in news coverage. 

The foreign agents register includes 95 people and outlets, 78 of which have been added since the beginning of 2021.

Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defense Center, a local group that provides journalists and media outlets with legal aid, and who authorities have personally classified as a foreign agent, told CPJ via phone that “the law was passed in order to be applied. So they are applying it.”