Is it possible to introduce censorship bypassing the Constitution? Easily. All one needs to do is to construct an appropriate system, get the “right” people to initiate the process in parliament in order to give it the appearance of legality, introduce the word “foreign agent” which sounds suspicious to the average citizen, incite law enforcement officials to actively enforce the law, “charge” propagandists, motivate “useful idiots” to “snitch” to the secret police, and voila! — The repression train is running. The “law” works. The Constitution rests.
This is more or less how things work in Russia today, as the Meduza investigation, “You are the enemies of the Fatherland, you must be hanged on poles,” convincingly demonstrates (author: Liliya Yapparova).
Back in 2012, my colleagues and I were pioneers in getting the “foreign agent” label: we set up an NGO to share our journalistic experiences and help novice investigative reporters from the regions, and we were among the first to be labeled as “foreign agents” for what the courts found to be “political activities.” This very activity was expressed in the publication of critical opinions on our website — the court ruling said as much. The pretext was quite exotic at the time, but today it is a common one. We immediately decided not to play by the rules (or, if you prefer, without the rules, which in this case is the same thing), imposed by the state special services: we eliminated our legal entity in Russia and came back, as they say, from the other side.
However, the regime did not waste any time in doing so. Not satisfied with the mopping up of NGOs and opposition politicians and activists, they went after the journalists. First they squeezed the most talented investigators out of most of the major media outlets, forcing their owners to shut down their investigative departments as such. And after colleagues did not give up and created even more thought-provoking Internet projects of their own, they began blatantly repressive measures. The result: four kinds of “foreign agents,” a list of “undesirable” organizations and a list of extremists all in one package. In April, seven editorial boards and 20 more journalists were given the “enemy label”. The Project Media was declared “undesirable”. Several sites have been blocked; those without “the status” have been threatened with inspections and trials.
The author of the investigation consistently brings out of the shadows the individuals and organizations involved in this special operation to impose censorship in circumvention and violation of the Russian Constitution. Particular attention is paid to the “voluntary helpers”. I remember that their names used to be hidden — during court hearings to challenge the “foreign-agent” status, we experienced difficulty to persuade a judge to even have a look at the sweeping letter with which the “foreign-agent case” began. Things are different now. By the way, according to the law, such a case can now start without the report of a “private individual” — an appeal from any government agency is enough. But the authorities need “patriots.” “The budget came up. I take it that if you do it with the last name and patronymic, they pay more,” notes one of Meduza’s interlocutors, sociologist Konstantin Gaase.
And the informers do not hide their names. Moreover, they are eager to talk to journalists (those whom they “turn in”). They seem to enjoy the process. They brag about “snitching” as if they do not think at all about the future, in which after the change of power, they will have to pay for everything. “Active Citizen” Alexander Ionov “jokingly” threatens the author of the investigation and even reproaches Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Foreign Intelligence Service, saying that he did not mention all the “foreign agents” in his interview to Solovyov (one of the top propagandists at the Russian state TV – ed.) – “he knows less than we do…” And only when it comes to his ties with the presidential administration, Mr. Ionov slows down slightly — apparently, he has not received instructions to “disclose” his contacts. But, apparently, he received a hint-advice to organize a kind of Public Committee to reveal foreign interference. So far, however, the organization has not been registered. But Ionov had already announced its creation in spring, simultaneously filing a lawsuit against Novaya Gazeta and complaining about Important Stories. He complained to the author of the investigation that preparing documents against “foreign agents” is a troublesome business — he gets help from two lawyers. “Drafting a complaint against “Medusa” cost more than 100 thousand rubles”, he laments.
Ionov sent one of his complaints — against the American Bard College (declared “undesirable” shortly thereafter) — through a structure called the Coordinating Council of Non-Profit Organizations of the Russian Federation (CC NPO). It is headed by Anton Tsvetkov, a public activist and a man with close ties to the Administration of the President in the past. Journalists have learned that Ionov was a member of two of Tsvetkov’s projects at once: the Officers of Russia movement and the Strong Russia movement.
Another notable character who has gained notoriety through “snitching” is Vitaly Borodin, a veteran of the Interior Ministry and an activist whose complaint to the prosecutor’s office had led to the Project Media being declared an “undesirable organization”. Borodin is famous for his miraculous ability to get acquainted with the powerful, for which he has earned the nickname “Truffaldino from Bergamo” among his friends. As a former official who knows Borodin well told Meduza, he is always accompanied by his personal photographer at events. At the moment he shakes hand with some important guy, he gets his picture taken, and then uploads the photos: “Here I am with this general, we discussed some important matters, and we are looking for some solutions”. “They gave him a pass to the prosecutor’s office,” the journalist quotes his source as saying, “and he started filming a video outside [former Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika’s office – ed.], as if he were going to see Chaika at a meeting. Borodin admitted to the author of the investigation that his aide did indeed “accompany him everywhere”. However, the admirer of photos with the powerful once got burned out on this hobby: Borodin was so eager to make a picture with Putin that he got into the history with his guards, which did not like such a desire for the “intimacy” with the protected person. Only a few years later, according to Meduza’s sources, he was “forgiven,” after a successful encounter with Umar Kremlin, president of the International Boxing Federation and former head of the Russian Boxing Federation. The latter, in turn, is believed to be close to Alexei Rubezhny, deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSS). Now Borodin posts photos of himself and famous United Russia party politicians on his Instagram, and “handles” with Patrushev and Kolokoltsev. “Then with this picture you can open doors,” the journalist quotes his acquaintance.
Having registered the Federal Security and Anti-Corruption Project (FSKP) in the town of Mytishchi, Borodin is already making his way into offices in the status of a public figure. He claims to have opened up anti-corruption units in 51 regions. The obligatory “trophy” is a photo with the local governor. He also magically turned out to be one of the Federal Security Service’s “contractors”. The thing is that the FSS is also charged with monitoring public opinion and the political situation in the regions. In this case, employees must not use the information provided to them by local authorities, but act in parallel. Since the FSS has only seven analytical centers of its own across the country, and since it has eliminated major professional independent competitors in this field with the help of the law on foreign agents, people “with connections” like Borodin are invited into the “case”. They provide “facts from the field” for analysis, “regarding the local intra-elite situation”, as one of the journalist’s interlocutor puts it.
The majority of experts with whom Meduza spoke believe that the complaints from Borodin, Ionov, Tsvetkov, and others do not have “objective power”. In reality the agencies behind the activists in coordination with the Administration of the President launch the mechanism for checking media and NGOs and labeling them as “foreign agents”.
Another regular “complainer,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, according to the journalist’s sources, joined the campaign against “foreign agents” in order to settle a personal score and, most importantly, to promote his own initiatives, primarily the National Values Protection Foundation (FZNTs). As, a former employee of Prigozhin’s structures, said to the author of the investigation, “He has a class hatred for you — I don’t rule out the possibility that he sincerely believes that you are enemies of the Fatherland and should be hanged on poles. He has the red empire in his head. He is a patriot of his imaginary country”.
Most of these “snitches” feed on information supplied by Russia Today (RT), an active participant in the special operation. As Borodin confesses to Meduza, “We look at what they write — and we start sending requests”.
A separate chapter in the Meduza investigation is devoted to RT. Of course, it is surprising what their staff does instead of doing their journalistic work. However, it only shows how huge is the difference between journalism and propaganda. RT has its own list of “untrustworthy” editorial offices (as well as organizations and individuals), which, as it became clear in the spring and summer of 2021, is almost exactly the same as the official “foreign agents” registry. Meduza’s sources call it a “card index on enemies” — and, according to two people close to the TV channel, it was Margarita Simonyan’s (the RT editor-in-chief – ed.) personal initiative to start it.
She has been running the “card index” for six years, but since 2018 it has also been supplemented by employees from a specially created investigative department. This is where one can feel like a real agent: the authors of the “RT Investigation” do not sign their materials and remain anonymous even within the editorial office – “apolitical young men with expertise in economics and experience in Aram Gabrelyanov’s media structures (known as the owner of “yellow press” and close to the government media – ed.). RT’s investigative department is divided into teams, each responsible for its own project. RT journalists have access to “sensitive information” only through Simonyan. The process is led by Yevgeny Shipilov, one of the channel’s top managers. He personally supervised the anti-Navalny and anti-Open Russia stories. In his profile on an industry website for media workers, Shipilov pointed out that in 2021, “a series of investigations by the editorial staff” won RT the Golden Pen of Russia award.
Three interlocutors confirmed to the Meduza that RT’s “investigators” are “advised” by the FSB’s Operative Information Department. They [the FSB] ran some materials published or shown by RT in 2017 and 2018, the journalist quoted an interlocutor close to the secret service as saying, which is also confirmed by Meduza’s sources in the Administration of the President. Simonyan, when asked if the channel’s employees were in contact with the security services, wrote: “I hope they are.”
The investigation is staggering in its abundance of information. To somehow cope with it, the author and the editor found a good solution in the form of using open footnotes: the reader who wants to go deeper into details easily does so clicking the arrow, and if there is no time for a long read, you can grasp it without going into details or postpone it for later.
A separate chapter of the investigation is devoted to the Ministry of Justice, which was charged with implementing the “foreign agent operation,” back when it only applied to NGOs. Natalia Yevdokimova, the member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights recalls how, when the law on foreign agents was passed in the Duma in 2012, then-Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov said that it “falls out of the general legislative order, contradicts everything and everyone. We don’t know how to implement it.” “We have learned,” the expert states.
Because of the new working conditions, Ministry of Justice officials are often “in administrative despair,” confirms to Meduza a source close to the agency. “Legislators are issuing crude laws that have to be implemented from the wheel…. Salaries are low and specialists are scarce,” an employee of the Justice Department in the Moscow region shares her problems with the journalist. — But everyone is used to working almost to death, everyone is trying to meet deadlines”.
Two major weaknesses of the law have not been pointed out only by the lazy: the wording, especially as it pertains to political activity, is vague (here, it would probably be more honest to simply name all activities political); the same is true of foreign financing. According to Natalia Yevdokimova, the law in its present form leaves too much to the Ministry of Jusctice, “dooming” it to selective application of the law: “If you don’t like an organization, it will be a «foreign agent,» and if you like another one, it won’t be.” Meanwhile, according to Yevdokimova, those “who are trying to soften the blow, because they cannot prevent it, have been quietly removed from the Ministry over the past two or three years”.
The author of the investigation provides a curious touch to the structure of the system. According to one of her interlocutors, on the eve of Meduza being included into the foreign agents’ list Ministry of Justice officials “were running around and couldn’t get the final brush-off. The problem was,” the source claims, “that you were on the list, but they couldn’t figure out who exactly wanted it. There was no serious operational material on you — but there was some large, but private wish.” This interlocutor hints that it could have been RT head Margarita Simonyan.
As Meduza’s investigation makes clear, there are many people who might have wanted it. This includes the aforementioned FSS, the Administration of the President, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (sometimes, as in the case of PASMI media, its information becomes the only basis for starting a check and making a decision), the General Prosecutor’s Office, vigilant “colleagues” in the industry, and certain influential individuals.
However, the central “operator” of the campaign against independent media, as the author of the investigation became convinced by her research and conversations with experts, was the FSB. For example, the Ministry of Justice honestly referred to the information received from the FSB during the unscheduled inspection of the Perm media project Fourth Sector — included in the list of “foreign agents” on August 21, 2021. As she recalls, Anastasia Sechina, its former coordinator, was told: “According to a statement from the [regional department] of the FSB, there is information that you are engaged in political activity. However, they didn’t provide a document to that effect — they limited themselves to verbal information”.
The Ministry of Justice received the order to list The Project media as an “undesirable” organization in a package — and the papers were from the special services,” an interlocutor familiar with the situation at the ministry said to Meduza. Andrei Soldatov, a researcher of the Russian special services with whom the author of the investigation spoke, assured Meduza that regardless of the document’s header, “it could have been written only in one place — the “second service” of the FSB (Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System and the Fight against Terrorism), headed for 15 years by General Alexei Sedov.
Information on “foreign agents” prepared by the FSB ends up in Putin’s hands. Putin himself confirmed this fact at a Human Rights Council meeting, while answering the question of the human rights activist Natalia Yevdokimova “who snitches to you?”: “Natalia Leonidovna, FSB representatives lay references on my desk, and they say exactly the opposite of what you’re telling us”.
And yet, whose last (or first) hand, is it?
Changing an organization’s status to “foreign agent” or “undesirable” requires coordinated action by a number of agencies — the Ministry of Justice, the Foreign Ministry, Roskomnadzor, Rosfinmonitoring, the Prosecutor General’s Office,” argues sociologist Konstantin Gaase. — The level of their coordination is astonishing: What would normally take months of negotiations now takes a day. It’s unlikely the FSB could have achieved something like this. Who could? The experts interviewed by Meduza are sure there is only one other organization in the Kremlin hierarchy which can do this, and has been given new powers by the amended constitution. This is the Security Council of the Russian Federation, chaired by the Putin himself. It is the Council that discusses the lists of would-be “foreign agents” and “undesirables» (according to Soldatov and three other Meduza interlocutors familiar with the contents of these meetings or documents). He is the one who outlines the goals of the FSB and its comrades-in-arms. The circle has closed.
The AP, Ministry of Justice, FSO, and FSB ignored Meduza’s questions. So far. But Meduza’s huge investigation, based on an abundance of different sources, shows more than convincingly: there was a command from above to shut up independent journalists and destroy the best media projects. The whole story about “foreign agents” and “undesirables” has been crafted as a special operation – and the Kremlin authorities and the special services entrusted to them are behind it. That is why, I should add, the suggestions to amend the repressive law, which my colleagues are now desperately trying to do through their appeals to higher authorities, are simply useless — it was created by those who currently rule and own the country not to be amended or abolished.
But at least such attempts show that journalistic solidarity is still here. And it is worth reminding civil society that censorship is powerless against freedom of thought and speech — there are still journalists in this country who are not afraid to resist and do their work honestly.
Search technologies used by the author: work with human sources, journalistic inquiries, and the study of publications and documents.
Techniques used: interviews with sources and experts; analysis and systematization of the data obtained.