AP

Russia outlaws top independent news site in latest crackdown

Jan 26, 2023, 8:11 AM | Updated: 5:27 pm

MOSCOW (AP) — An independent news website that has been critical of Russia’s military action in Ukraine was declared “undesirable” by the government Thursday, effectively outlawing its operation within the country as part of the Kremlin’s latest crackdown on dissent.

Founded in 2014 and based in Latvia, Meduza for years has been one of the most popular independent Russian-language news sites, with an audience of millions. The site was blocked in Russia nearly a year ago, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine began, along with websites of multiple other independent news outlets. It can still be accessed through virtual private networks.

The decision by the prosecutor-general’s office came on the same day that the publisher of the Mediazona website, which reports on the legal system and law enforcement, said he was charged in absentia with spreading false and defamatory information about the Russian military.

Russian authorities also evicted from its property a human rights center named in honor of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, and they closed the country’s oldest human rights organization.

The Russian prosecutor-general’s order said Meduza’s activities presented “a threat to the foundations of the Russian Federation’s constitutional order and national security.”

The decision applies specifically to the Medusa Project organization, which publishes Meduza. The declaration exposes its journalists and managers to prosecution, as well as people who comment to reporters and readers who share links to articles on social media.

“It is a very bad status,” Editor-in-Chief Ivan Kolpakov told The Associated Press on Thursday in an interview.

“It is simply ridiculous to talk about our work as a threat to Russia’s constitutional order,” Kolpakov added.

A law passed in 2015 allows Russia to declare foreign organizations undesirable, effectively prohibiting them from operating in Russia, and to subject Russians who are tied to them to fines and imprisonment. The law is a companion to a measure that requires organizations in Russia that receive foreign funding to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” potentially undermining their credibility.

Both laws have been used to stifle or discredit dissent.

Meduza had already been declared a foreign agent and was obliged to publish a banner acknowledging the designation on its stories.

Despite being blocked, Meduza managed to keep its large audience, Kolpakov said, and that’s what, in his view, prompted the decision to declare it undesirable.

Authorities “were extremely frustrated that Meduza continued to operate, retained the audience, journalists in Russia, extensive coverage of Russian developments,” he said.

The move is intended to intimidate, he added, but the team is not giving up.

“The assumption is that it will be very hard to work, much harder than before, but, nevertheless, there is no desire to break up,” Kolpakov said.

Meduza is not the first independent news outlet to be declared undesirable, but it is arguably the biggest and the best known. The investigative outlet Proekt was outlawed as undesirable in 2021. Two other investigative sites, Vazhnye Istorii and The Insider, were slapped with the label last year.

Vazhnye Istorii and The Insider continued their coverage, and Proekt’s journalists regrouped to launch another investigative project.

Kolpakov said Thursday’s decision was expected. The team anticipated since Meduza’s launch in 2014 that the site would someday be blocked in Russia and that authorities “would gift us some interesting status.”

“So I would say that morally and organizationally we’re generally ready for it. But it doesn’t mean that it would be easy,” Kolpakov said.

Russian authorities unleashed a sweeping crackdown on independent media, human rights groups and opposition activists in 2021, labeling scores of people and organizations foreign agents, arresting some activists and forcing many to leave the country under pressure.

The crackdown intensified after Russia sent troops into Ukraine 11 months ago and passed another law penalizing information that is seen as discrediting Russian troops.

Prominent opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced in December to 8 1/2 years in prison under that law. Another prominent opposition figure, Vladimir Kara-Murza, is in detention facing the same charges.

In the Mediazona case, publisher Pyotr Verzilov was charged with violating the law because of social media posts about Bucha, the city near Kyiv where the bodies of hundreds of civilians were found after Russian troops pulled out. Many appeared to have been executed, but Russia said the deaths were staged as a provocation.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said Verzilov “created a real threat of forming a false opinion among citizens about the goals and objectives of the special military operation in Ukraine,” state news agency Tass reported Thursday.

Also Thursday, the human rights center named after Sakharov said Moscow city authorities had ordered it to vacate its premises.

The Sakharov Center said its leases were canceled on properties where it operates a cultural center and a museum and houses the archives of the late Soviet nuclear physicist turned dissident who won the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights work.

The eviction is connected to an expansion of the foreign agents’ law in December that forbids state support to organizations designated as agents.

“The island of freedom is impossible in modern Russia, which has turned away not only from the legacy of Sakharov, but also from the entire domestic tradition of humanism, striving for truth and justice,” the center said in a statement.

Russia this week also shut down the country’s oldest human rights organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Authorities accused the organization of violating its legal registration in Moscow by working on human rights cases outside the Russian capital, accusations the group denounced as “minute and absurd.”

Founded in 1976, the group seeks freedom for political prisoners and the establishment of democratic rights.

___

Litvinova reported from Tallinn, Estonia.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Russia outlaws top independent news site in latest crackdown