Exiled Russian journalist Bogdan Bakaleyko speaks on his YouTube channel on May 19 about being added to the Interior Ministry's wanted list for people it regards as criminals.
Exiled Russian journalist Bogdan Bakaleyko speaks on his YouTube channel on May 19 about being added to the Interior Ministry's wanted list for people it regards as criminals. (Screenshot: Bakaleyko/YouTube)

Russia bans news site SOTA, penalizes 3 ‘foreign agent’ journalists

Berlin, May 22, 2024—Russian authorities must immediately halt their criminalization of journalists and independent media outlets by labeling them as “undesirable” and by issuing punitive sanctions against those they deem “foreign agents,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

On May 16, the prosecutor general’s office banned SOTA, one of Russia’s last independent news outlets, as an undesirable organization, according to news reports and Aleksei Obukhov, SOTA’s senior editor, who spoke with CPJ.

Russian authorities also issued fines against two journalists, at least one of whom lives in exile, and added a third, based in Germany, to its wanted list for violating the foreign agents law, which requires outlets and individuals that the government deems “under foreign influence” or that receive external funding to label their content as produced by a foreign agent.

“Russian authorities seem so frightened of independent reporting that they are relentlessly using their laws on foreign agents and undesirable organizations to suppress critical voices, even when they are based abroad,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should stop this legal harassment of the free press.”

Organizations that receive the undesirable classification are banned from operating in Russia, and anyone who participates in or works to organize their activities faces up to six years in prison and administrative fines. The designation also makes it a crime to distribute the outlet’s content, such as sharing it online, or to donate to it.

The prosecutor general’s office said on Telegram that SOTA “disseminated materials discrediting the actions of Russian government authorities and the military,” which it said were “blatant attempts to destabilize the socio-political situation in Russia.”

SOTA, which primarily reports via Telegram, is known for its coverage of anti-war protests. Some of its staff have been forced into exile but others continue to report from inside Russia, such as posting videos from courtroom trials.

“This is an attempt by the government to make our work as difficult as possible,” SOTA’s Obukhov told CPJ.

Fined for violating ‘foreign agents’ law

Separately, on May 15, Tagansky district court in the capital Moscow fined two journalists for violating the foreign agents law, according to news reports.

Aleksandra Ageyeva, the founder of Sota.Vision — a news site set up in 2015, from which some staff broke away in 2022 to form SOTA — was fined 10,000 rubles (US$110) while Mumin Shakirov, a reporter with the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was fined 30,000 rubles (US$332), those sources said.

The journalists will appeal the court decision as they were not informed about the hearing and were not present, according to Sota.Vision, which was listed as a foreign agent in 2023.

Ageyeva fled Russia in March 2022, one month after she was labeled a foreign agent and Russia embarked on its full scale invasion of Ukraine.

Wanted list

In a third case, on May 17, the Interior Ministry added exiled journalist Bogdan Bakaleyko, who comments on news events on his YouTube channel, to its wanted list, accusing him of violating the foreign agents law, according to news reports.

The Interior Ministry has listed more than 95,000 people as criminals on its online database, which means they risk arrest if they enter Russia.

Bakaleyko was listed as a foreign agent in 2023 and has twice been fined for failing to add that label to his content, as required under the Article 330.1, Part 2 of the Criminal Code, according to news reports, for which the penalty is up to two years in prison.

“It hurts me that some cunning people consider me a foreign agent working under some kind of foreign influence,” Bakaleyko said in a livestream from the German capital Berlin, where he is based, adding that he was “not very comfortable” with the foreign agent label as he worried it could put him in danger.

“If common sense, sound judgment, adequacy, honesty, and sincerity are considered exclusively qualities of foreign influence, then so be it. I believe I am sincere and primarily perform my work for the people.”

Since 2021, Russian authorities have labeled more than a dozen media organizations “undesirable,” including exiled Dozhd TV (TV Rain), independent news sites Meduza and Novaya Gazeta Europe, and investigative outlets The Insider and Bellingcat. Dozens of media organizations and more than 100 journalists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, have also been designated as foreign agents.

CPJ’s emails to the Russian general prosecutor’s office and Moscow’s Tagansky court requesting comment did not receive any replies.

Editor’s note: This text has been updated in the ninth and tenth paragraphs to reflect that Mumin Shakirov works with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.