On April 23, the Latvia-based Russian news site Meduza was declared a foreign agent by the Russian ministry of justice, together with the news outlet PASMI. The impact was immediate, Galina Timchenko, Meduza’s founder and CEO, said at an online briefing organized by Vienna’s fjum (forum journalismus und medien), the International Press Institute’s (IPI) and Presseclub Concordia May 26.
In less than a week following the announcement, Meduza already lost 90 precent of its advertisers and millions of euros of its revenue sources. “Unfortunately, our business model was smashed in just one day and now my journalists are under personal risk of prosecution”, Timchenko said.
For independent media like Meduza, the foreign agent declaration can lead to serious financial consequences as advertisers may not be willing to be associated with organizations carrying the label.
In addition, organizations considered foreign agents risk incurring fines of thousands of euros if they don’t comply the law, which requires outlets to put a “foreign agent disclaimer” on every article and post they publish. Media outlets may also face criminal charges or even a complete publication ban in Russia.
The setbacks are not just financial. Timchenko told participants in the press briefing that since the declaration people are afraid to talk to them. This means they have lost some of their sources of information. It has particularly impacted journalists who have specialized in certain topics.
“According to the Russian civil code, people who give us an interview are (considered) co-authors of our content so (in) giving us an interview, you are taking part in making content for foreign agent”, Timchenko said. “Even a simple interview or comment could lead you to be declared as a foreign agent.”
Despite the troubled situation, many journalists and experts have shown their support to Meduza. For example many experts, authors and freelancers, have said they will write for Meduza free of charge as receiving money from abroad would put them at too great a risk. “They said: we will write to Meduza for free of charge, because we are too scared to get money from abroad, but we do want to support you”, Timchenko said.
Folks, the Russian authorities are trying to kill Meduza. The Justice Ministry has labeled us a “foreign agent,” chasing away our advertisers. Now we’re running out of money and turning to you. Yes, you. https://t.co/v9ZvkQ6dMo
— Meduza in English (@meduza_en) April 30, 2021
So far the biggest support Meduza has received is from its audience. Because of the financial uncertainty, Meduza announced a crowdfunding campaign that has so far gained 85,000 individual supporters, Timchenko said. “We are on the edge of survival and what we realized is that we have no money, we have no advertisers but what we do have is millions of readers. We have a very loyal audience”, Timchenko said.
Despite the support, Meduza’s future is still unclear.
“This is the beginning and we unfortunately are the main target of Russian authorities. Not just Meduza, but every independent media in Russia is under threat”, Timchenko said.