A new law in Russia could shut down critical speech by reclassifying some journalists as "foreign agents." By creating a climate of fear, the government is forcing reporters to self-censor, DW's Ingo Mannteufel writes.
An expanded media law allows Russia's Justice Ministry to declare journalists and bloggers whose outlets receive funding from abroad "foreign agents." People deemed in breach of the law face steep fines. The purpose of the law is to suppress and discredit investigative and critical journalism. But the wording is so vague that it will foster a climate of fear that leads to self-censorship.
Russia has adopted a range of laws to regulate cyberspace. The "sovereign internet" law adopted earlier this year is designed to cut the entire country off from the World Wide Web and filter information as necessary. The purpose is apparently to create an isolated national digital space akin to what the governments of China and Iran are doing.
But, as this requires money and considerable time to implement, the Kremlin is now going after the weakest link in the chain: individual journalists, who have slim chances of getting a fair trial in Russia's legal system. The court cases of protesters in Moscow during the summer make abundantly clear that Russia's legal system is not a just one.
A desperate measure?
In 2012, Russia passed a law to classify nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad as foreign agents. In 2017, the Duma broadened this law to include media outlets. That year, the government classified nine US-funded media organizations — Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and nine RFE/RL-supported Russian- or regional-language outlets — as foreign agents. The government has threatened to add other media organizations, including DW, to the list. Groups or organizations on the government's watch list are required to regularly file reports about their finances, goals, expenses and staff.
The Kremlin has now decided that going after large media organizations is no longer enough. Instead, the new law now targets individual journalists who work for media outlets classified as foreign agents — as well as social media influencers who spread their content online.
Free-thinking, critically minded and clever Russian-language journalists are effectively being forced into exile or to work for international media organizations. Numerous stellar reporters have responded to the repression by switching from Kremlin-controlled media organizations to Russian-language outlets abroad or to international broadcasters that report in Russian, such as DW, Voice of America and the BBC.
The new law breaches the constitutionally guaranteed right of free access to information. Desperate to cling to power, the member of President Vladimir Putin's inner circle do not seem to care about this.
Growing disaffection and the increasing popularity of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have spooked Russia's government. With legislative elections coming up in 2021 — and a vote to replace the termed-out Putin scheduled for 2024 — the government seems bent on stifling critical Russian-language journalism at all cost.