IF THIS were Meduza, an independent source of news about Russia, this paragraph would begin with a mandatory government disclaimer: “THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND/OR DISSEMINATED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA OUTLET PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT.” The words “foreign agent” have a distinct stigma in Russia from Soviet times — meaning treason and spies. You are warned.
The move to label Meduza a “foreign agent” and require this text at the top of its reports is further evidence of President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive attempt to extinguish autonomous civil society in Russia. The “foreign agent” law, passed in 2012 and frequently modified since, originally required nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents” and to submit to audits. It was broadened to include foreign-funded media, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian service and others. Recent changes signed by Mr. Putin allow Russia to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its “foreign agents” list and to impose restrictions on them. RFE/RL, supported by the U.S. government, has refused to publish the “foreign agent” label and is facing massive fines as a result.
Meduza says the “foreign agent” designation threatens its future. It was founded in 2014, when the widely read Russian news website Lenta.ru was taken over by an oligarch close to Mr. Putin, and its editor, Galina Timchenko, was removed. Journalists, including Ms. Timchenko and Ivan Kolpakov, a Meduza co-founder, moved to Riga, Latvia, and launched Meduza. With journalists inside Russia, it has covered the news and published aggressive scoops, including inside looks at the violent and shady Russian funeral industry and at Russia’s cyberhackers. After being labeled a “foreign agent,” its advertising revenue evaporated. It is appealing to readers for help to survive.
Mr. Putin views free and independent reporting as a threat. He is taking a page from the dictator’s handbook, in this case Fidel Castro, who in 1960 began to silence newspapers beyond his control by demanding they publish a disclaimer at the end of articles critical of him. The disclaimers said the article “does not conform to the truth nor to the most elementary journalistic ethics.”
Mr. Putin also likes to learn repressive techniques from President Xi Jinping of China, whose government five years ago approved a “foreign agent” law to curtail and penalize nongovernmental organizations. Mr. Xi also brandished another iron-fisted method in 2015 with a crackdown on lawyers who represented human rights activists. More than 300 lawyers and activists were arrested. Now, Mr. Putin emulates China with the April 30 arrest of Ivan Pavlov, one of Russia’s best-known human rights lawyers, who has been representing opposition leader Alexei Navalny and others targeted by the Russian security services.
Mr. Putin has dramatically escalated his pressure on civil society in recent months, attempting to assassinate Mr. Navalny and to destroy his organization. It’s a campaign that should not continue without consequences from Western governments.