The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russia outlaws an independent news outlet. Meduza cannot be silenced.

Galina Timchenko, Meduza's co-founder, executive director and publisher, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Moscow in 2015. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
3 min

As the Soviet Union crumbled, a genuine flowering of independent news media appeared in Russia. The radio station Echo of Moscow, the newsmagazine Itogi, the newspapers Sevodnya and Kommersant, the television channel NTV and dozens of others arose during the 1990s, unfettered by the state. Most are now shuttered or under the thumb of the Kremlin, or its allies. One of the last independent outlets, Meduza, has just been designated “undesirable” by Russia, threatening those who read and disseminate it in the country with criminal penalties.

Meduza has been at the front lines of reporting about President Vladimir Putin’s shift from soft authoritarianism to dictatorship. It was founded in 2014 by a group of journalists, including Galina Timchenko, who was fired that year as editor in chief of the popular news site by its oligarch owner after Russia instigated the conflict in Ukraine with its invasion and annexation of Crimea. They set up Meduza in Latvia. In 2021, Russia formally labeled Meduza a “foreign agent” in an effort to discourage its coverage, and in 2022, as the war in Ukraine began, it was blocked online inside of Russia. But Meduza has refused to give up. It has grown into the most widely read independent source of news on Russia in Russian. By operating from Riga, it has protected its finances and operations from Russian control.

The new crackdown means it is completely prohibited in Russia under a law, adopted in 2015, that gives the prosecutor general the right to designate any foreign or international nongovernmental organization “undesirable” if it concludes that the activities threaten “the foundations of the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation.” Meduza no longer has journalists inside Russia. But criminal penalties might be lodged against those who distribute Meduza’s reports or repost them on social media, those inside Russia who try to transfer money to Meduza or those who serve as sources for interviews and comments. “We are afraid for our readers,” the news outlet said after the designation. “We are scared for those who have worked with Meduza for many years. We are afraid for our loved ones and friends.”

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Nonetheless, Meduza vowed, “we believe in what we do. We believe in freedom of speech. We believe in a democratic Russia. The stronger the pressure, the harder we resist it.” The organization added, in a posting on its site: “We have no right to give up and be silent,” and “We will figure out how to work in the new conditions and how to stay close to you.”

The attack on Meduza underscores yet again the extent of Mr. Putin’s drive toward totalitarianism — control over all aspects of society. He has criminalized freedom of speech, assembly and religion inside of Russia, and is trying to destroy Ukraine as a democracy. Meduza’s survival is vital to keep shining a light on Russia when freedom is at risk.

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