Out of 180 countries in the 2021 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Russia comes in at number 150. Russia describes itself in its constitution as a "democratic federal state governed by the rule of law" — but the RSF's ranking rates the press freedom situation there as "bad."
More than 100 foreign and domestic media organizations and individuals appear on the list of "foreign agents" drafted by the Russian Ministry of Justice.
The law on so-called foreign agents dates back to 2012, when it applied to nongovernmental organizations that received funding from abroad. Its scope was expanded in 2019, and since then it has applied to individuals or organizations that receive any amount of foreign funding and publish "printed, audio, audio-visual or other reports and materials."
Accreditation can be withdrawn
Those on the list must label all their publications with a disclaimer indicating "foreign agent" status. They must also submit financial statements and reports on their activities to the government every six months and undergo annual audits.
A separate restriction only allows foreign journalists to work in Russia with government accreditation. This can be withdrawn with little warning, as just happened to DW's correspondents in Moscow.
Television is still the most important source of news in Russia. In 2018, a survey by the Levada Center, an independent research institute, found that half of all Russians trusted the information they got from TV news. Yet according to Reporters Without Borders, Russian television is "firmly in government hands."
Dekoder is an online news portal that translates reports from independent Russian media into German that has won numerous Grimme journalism prizes. In a Q&A on media in Russia, Dekoder also wrote that television in Russia is largely "under state control."
And in 2014 a law was passed that limits freedom for online media too. The "Lugovoi Law" — named for one of its authors, the State Duma deputy Andrei Lugovoi — allows news sites to be blocked without a court order, if the prosecutor's office demands it.
Journalists "are already taking the precaution of refraining from publishing material that could potentially get them into trouble," writes Dekoder.
Uncertainty about what state agencies deem acceptable and what they do not is also making it harder for Russian journalists to do their jobs.
"Some journalists get into trouble for things that others write with no problem. Many experts see this as part of a strategy," said Heiko Pleines, deputy director of the Research Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen, in an email to DW. "If the boundaries are unclear, everyone becomes more cautious. Consequently, there is widespread self-censorship."
Independent — for how long?
It's mainly through newspapers and online media that the Russian population is able to access reporting that engages critically with the Kremlin. The most well-established independent media in Russia include the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, known for its investigations, the online TV channel Dozhd (TV-Rain), which was placed on the "foreign agent" list in August 2021, and the Latvia-based news portal Meduza, which was classified as a "foreign agent" in April 2021.
On February 3, Novaya Gazeta announced that its journalist Elena Milashina, who reported on human rights violations in the autonomous Russian constituent republic of Chechnya, had had to leave the country "in light of the numerous personal threats made against her in recent days by prominent representatives of the Chechen Republic."
Since Novaya Gazeta was founded, five of its journalists have been murdered — including the renowned journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead outside her apartment in October 2006.
"The pressure on journalists in Russia has been increasing for 20 years," Pleines said.
Dekoder comments that "the trend over the last few years has been more and more toward state control, with independent voices hugely marginalized."
The closure of DW's studio in Moscow is another step in this direction.