(New York, NY) — Russia’s government took the drastic step of designating the privately-owned media outlet Meduza as a “foreign agent” late last week. The designation will require Meduza—founded by Galina Timchenko in 2014—to add a foreign agent notification to every article, post, and page they publish; the notification must appear in a font that is twice the size of the rest of the webpage. This is likely to deter advertisers from continuing to work with Meduza, as the media website posted in an article earlier this week. Sources may also be less likely to communicate openly with Meduza as a result of the designation, limiting the outlet’s journalists’ access to experts and news stories.

Writers on Meduza’s payroll can now also be designated as individual foreign agents, giving the government unprecedented means by which to pressure and punish reporters and journalists. Further, Meduza and its editors may be fined exorbitantly, or even jailed by authorities for failing to include foreign agent notifications exactly as demanded of them. Another regional media source, Russia Free Europe/Radio Liberty, already has hundreds of complaints due to the platform’s failure to follow these strict rules, and the resulting penalties now total nearly $1 million. A new law passed in December 2020 enables the Russian government to label any individual or informal organization as a “foreign agent” if they receive funding from outside the country and engage in political activities (a 2012 “foreign agents” law already applied this to NGOs, to devastating effect).

“From the potential loss of revenue to constraints on journalists’ ability to do their jobs and the threat of imprisonment, the consequences of the foreign agent designation are devastating for Meduza and represent a threat to the future of Russian language independent media,” said Polina Sadovskaya, director of Eurasia programs at PEN America. “While Meduza plans to challenge the designation in court, such an effort is unlikely to be successful in the face of a government committed to crushing those who speak truth to power. It is clear that the Russian authorities want to send a message that independent media is an enemy of the state, when really it is these assaults on press freedom and democracy that pose the greatest threat. The designation must be reversed, the foreign agent laws must be reformed, and the international community must stand against the Putin regime’s ever-increasing assault on basic freedoms.”      

The European Union has already rejected Russia’s designation of Meduza, saying that it goes against international obligations and human rights. PEN America has previously issued statements on the expansion of Russia’s alarming foreign agent laws.