Russia labels media outlet, 2 rights groups ‘foreign agents’

Pyotr Verzilov

FILE – In this Friday, Sept. 7, 2018 file photo, Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the feminist protest group Pussy Riot, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Moscow, Russia. Russian authorities on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021 designated a popular independent media outlet and two rights groups “foreign agents,” a move that comes as part of a months-long crackdown on opposition supporters, independent media and human rights activists. Along with the three entities, 22 individuals — including Mediazona chief editor Sergei Smirnov and publisher Pyotr Verzilov, who is also a prominent member of the protest group Pussy Riot — have also been added to the ministry’s registry of “foreign agents.” (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian authorities on Wednesday designated a popular independent media outlet and two rights groups “foreign agents,” a move that comes as part of a months-long crackdown on opposition supporters, independent media and human rights activists.

The Justice Ministry slapped the “foreign agent” label on Mediazona, a news site known for its extensive coverage of high-profile court cases; OVD-Info, a prominent legal aid group that focuses on political arrests; and Zona Prava, another human rights group. The designation implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that may discredit the recipient.

Along with the three entities, 22 individuals — including Mediazona chief editor Sergei Smirnov and publisher Pyotr Verzilov, who is also a prominent member of the protest group Pussy Riot — have also been added to the ministry’s registry of “foreign agents.”

Grigory Okhotin, co-founder of OVD-Info, told The Associated Press that Wednesday’s move wasn’t unexpected.

“We see this as being part of the pressure campaign against independent organizations and media. This didn’t start today. It’s curious that it happened at the height of the public campaign to abolish the foreign agent legislation, in which OVD-Info was one of the key initiators,” Okhotin said.

He added that 222 organizations have joined the campaign so far and said that “it couldn’t have gone unnoticed.”

In recent months, the government has designated a number of independent media outlets and journalists as “foreign agents” and raided the homes of several prominent reporters. The publisher of one outlet that released investigative reports on alleged corruption and abuses by top Russian officials and tycoons close to Putin was outlawed as an “undesirable” organization.

Two other news outlets shut down after authorities accused them of links to “undesirable” organizations.

Human rights groups in Russia have faced similar pressure, with at least two disbanding themselves in recent months to avoid a further crackdown.

The Kremlin, however, has denied that it is stifling media freedoms and insists that the “foreign agent” designation doesn’t bar outlets from operating.

OVD-Info rose to prominence over its meticulous tracking and counting of arrests at street protests in Russia — something activists first did in 2011, during the mass protests triggered by a Russian parliamentary election tainted by numerous reports of voter fraud. For media outlets covering protests, their data have become indispensable over the years, as the authorities largely kept quiet or underplayed the scale of the crackdown on demonstrators.

OVD-Info operates as a legal aid group as well, dispatching lawyers to help detained protesters at police stations and in courts. Just last week, the group was awarded the Civil Rights Defender of the Year award in Sweden.

Okhotin told the AP on Wednesday the group will continue its work no matter what difficulties the “foreign agent” designation will bring.

“Of course we will continue to work as we did before, this cannot stop us,” he said.

Mediazona has been widely known for its live-blogging of high-profile court hearings, as well as critical investigations of police abuse and rights abuses in Russia’s penitentiary system. The outlet said in a statement Wednesday that it doesn’t plan to shut down, but “doing our job will become much difficult from now on.”

“Because of the ‘foreign agents’ label, characters and sources are reluctant to talk to journalists, officials use it as an excuse not to answer our questions, other outlets prefer not to cite Mediazona (they must mention that we’re a ‘foreign agent’), and readers suffer because of the pointless disclaimer,” the statement said, referring to a lengthy disclaimer which those declared “foreign agents” must add to any piece of content they publish.

The Zona Prava rights group was founded by Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who spent nearly two years in prison for a 2012 protest inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It provides legal aid to victims of police abuse, domestic violence, medical errors occurring in civilian and prison hospitals and rights abuses in the armed forces.

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Daniel Kozin contributed to this report.

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