Press freedom
Living in the Shadow of Russia's Foreign Agents Law: A Conversation with Galina Arapova

Russian lawyer and civil rights activist Galina Arapova on Russia's foreign agents law and what can journalists do in this hostile environment
a book and a gavel
© Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

The interview is a part of the Rule of Silence project, conducted jointly by Wilson Centre and the Moscow office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. This project covers press freedom in Russia and the actions the state takes to fight free press.

This time, Sergey Parkhomenko talks with Galina Arapova about the hostile environment created by foreign agents law for Russian journalists. 

Sergey Parkhomenko is a journalist and senior advisor at Wilson Centre. Galina Arapova is a lawyer, civil rights activist, founder and director of the Mass Media Defence Centre. 

Foreign agents law is a law in Russia that requires non-profit organizations, media and even some persons that receive foreign donations and engage in "political activity" to register and declare themselves as foreign agents. Once registered, NGOs are subject to additional audits and are obliged to mark all their official statements with a disclosure that it is being given by a "foreign agent". The word "foreign agent" in Russian has strong associations with cold war-era espionage and implies anti-Russian activity. 

a book and a gavel
© Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

Education and support

The legislation affects many people, not only those who work in labeled NGOs. Not everyone fully understands yet how comprehensive the risk of becoming a foreign agent is, even though the media have been providing sufficiently active coverage of this problem. That is why special education on the subject is needed. 

There have already been clarifying webinars and individual consultations for audiences that are interested in the topic and are steeling themselves for possible new life complications. A list of recommendations was published. In 2019–2020, the Mass Media Defense Center held a dozen webinars for investigative journalists and for Russian journalists collaborating with international media.

But support should be complex, not limited to legal only. "Hundreds of people, including us, are living in constant stress and in anticipation of a “love letter” from the Ministry of Justice. Living in stress is hard, and living while waiting for unfair persecution is even harder. That is why support at various levels is extremely important—legal, tax-related, financial, and psychological. People need to understand that they are not alone, that they are in the company of other decent and respectable people, and that intentional stigmatization through being branded a foreign agent does not irrevocably damage their reputation and life" -- says Galina Arapova. 

Introducing the foreign agent status for physical persons, establishing criminal liability, and including five individuals on the register of foreign agent media—all this increases the stress levels for the entire and very diverse risk group. And I don’t even know which type of support is more important under these circumstances—legal, financial, or psychological.

Galina Arapova

Dealing with foreign agent legislation

Unfortunately, dealing with the status is quite difficult. All five individuals who were declared foreign agent media went to court (Lyudmila Savitskaya, Denis Kamalyagin, Sergei Markelov, Daria Apakhonchich, Lev Ponomarev). Galina Arapova convinced that one must indeed take this step because it is impossible to accept as fair the Ministry of Justice’s decision to pin a foreign agent label on a person for absolutely lawful activities. The fact that it is de jure possible under Russian law does not mean that this decision of a Russian government body meets international human rights standards.

One should understand that unfortunately, the liquidation of a human rights organization does not remove and is even unlikely to reduce the risk of its executive and staff being declared foreign agents on an individual basis. It is also important to remember that people cannot get any of the Ministry of Justice requirements cancelled; they do not have that kind of authority. It is only possible to challenge them in court. "And if a person gets declared a foreign agent, I would recommend that they comply with all the requirements because the risk associated with non-compliance is too high", says Galina Arapova. For example, if a person is active on social media and in public, then they will have to post a disclaimer about their status. The absence of that disclaimer creates the risk of administrative liability, and repeated offenses lead to criminal liability.

Future of independent media

Galina Arapova believes that independent journalist will continue their work, despite the growing number of risks. Moreover, the segment of independent journalism has been growing in recent years. Bloggers are also joining this segment, including in Russia’s regions. Interestingly, the government has partially contributed to that trend through its overly aggressive campaign of television and regional media subjugation, when it forced almost all district-level and regional newspapers into state media holdings. Less and less independent journalism in the regions has led to independent online projects and bloggers have taken its place.

Many of the newcomers are very committed and motivated. The foreign agent status will not force them out of journalism. They will keep working, but that does not mean they will not need help. They will, and probably more than before.

Galina Arapova

The situation with independent media is worsening very fast. Not long after the interview, Meduza, one of the most successful independent media outlets in Russia, was labelled a foreign agent. Now the outlet is relying on financial support from its readers, since the successful business model was ruined by the new status. VTimes, new independent media created by the ex-team of Vedomosti, also got labelled as a foreign agent media, despite the fact that VTimes is not registered as a media in any jurisdiction.

The full interview is available here.