Russian Journalists Meet with Dark Humor and a Print with Subscribers

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RIGA, Latvia – There’s a certain kind of American podcast where two young journalists explore their own mid-size issues, laugh a lot, interview their mother.

Sonya Groysman, a 27-year-old journalist working for the independent news site Proekt in Moscow, was a fan of these programs, so when she and her colleague Olga Churakova got into trouble, it seemed natural to start recording. But the issues they discuss in that familiar format are frightening and existential. Last month, the two women were placed on the Russian government’s list of “foreign agents”, who threatened to end their careers if they didn’t fill out tons of paperwork and didn’t even include a 24-word disclaimer on their personal social media. messages can mean heavy fines and imprisonment.

That’s why their podcast “Hello, You are a Foreign Agency” The first chapter begins with Ms. Groysman’s stumbling, laughing disclaimer, which translates as: “THIS NEWS MEDIA/MATERIAL WAS MADE BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA PERFORMING A FOREIGN REPRESENTATIVE AND/OR RUSSIAN LAW FUNCTIONS. THE ORGANIZATION PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF REPRESENTATIVE.” In another episode, Ms. Churakova tries and fails to get a job at a fast-food chain specializing in blini after explaining her new situation.

Ms. Groysman and her co-host don’t ask listeners for money to support the podcast, saying she worries that her use of something like the American crowdfunding platform Patreon could be misinterpreted and held against her. He said the podcast was simply his way of “staying in office”.

in February I wrote It’s about an unexpected development in Russian online journalism in this area last year. Essentially, in a country where every major television broadcaster is a highly produced, pro-government analogue of Fox News, a number of digital broadcasts have riveted. Them President Vladimir V. Putin’s family fortune revealed and report on agents poisoning opposition leader Alexey naval forces.

They were all part of a global system. wave It was reckless journalism—until last week, the Afghan press was the freest in the region—in non-hostile places, where autocrats increasingly saw reporters as a threat. This summer, the Russian government tried to stem the wave by designating its highest-influenced critics as “unwanted” or foreign agents, or both.

The founder of the news site Proekt, translated as a project, left the country. Independent business news site VTimes close. Last Friday, the government added TV Rain, a longtime independent broadcaster, and news site iStories to its list. And Ms. Groysman was arrested on Saturday to protest this move and was detained for five hours; He recorded the match for the next episode of “Hi, You’re a Foreign Agent” coming Tuesday.

The definition of “foreign agent” has practical implications, including effectively removing business partners. It also forces journalists to add a 24-word disclaimer to their work, even personal social media posts. And it comes with echoes of a dark, Stalinist past.

“This immediately transfers you to the 1930s,” said Ivan Kolpakov, editor-in-chief of the Meduza news site, which has an audience of more than 10 million a month. “Yesterday you were a respected journalist from the most popular independent media outlet. You are a marginal person today. That means many open doors are closing right in front of you.”

I visited Mr. Kolpakov in Meduza’s new office – a crowded apartment overlooking the courtyard, on a side street near the center of the Latvian capital. Galina Timchenko, co-founder and CEO of the site, pays the rent personally. I was there because while most of the print’s goals were sourced from a new small, grant-funded online research organization, Meduza is something different.

Founded by journalists who left another popular site after losing independence in Riga in 2014, Meduza started out as a resolutely commercial, ad-based business, and nearly as a not-so-distant cousin to the early American news sites. same time.

Nationalist activist Aleksandr Ionov, who campaigned to label him as a foreign agent, relied on weak evidence (for example, a podcast sponsored by Latvia’s tourism agency) to claim he was supported by foreigners. Mr. Kolpakov said that with 1.3 million followers on Twitter, nearly a million followers on Instagram and nearly 450,000 followers on Telegram, Meduza had an annual income of more than $2.5 million prior to his appointment as a foreign agent on April 23.

Within a week, Meduza had lost more than 95 percent of its advertisers. Mr. Kolpakov and Ms. Timchenko sullenly told staff during a Zoom meeting that they saw no real way forward. Meduza’s editor-in-chief Tatiana Ershova, reporters and editors were outraged and demanded that they “fight to the end.” That’s why they launched a final call, asking readers for money to “save Meduza”. They even accepted cryptocurrency to protect timid donors, and most didn’t require backers to leave an email address.

The campaign also aimed to change the label of “foreign agent” from an ominous allusion to something readers could laugh at. “Become a summer manager,” said one ad. An Instagram post suggested tagging your “foreign agent crush.”

The result is one of the most effective campaigns of its kind. Meduza has registered more than 90,000 donors. Katerina Abramova, the site’s communications director, said she was stunned that journalists felt “really loved and needed people to want to read their stories”.

“We think that any detailed information can be used against us by the state,” Kolpakov said, avoiding specifying how much money they collected. The publication still had to cut about 40 percent of its costs and moved from a shiny new office to its current digs. But Meduza remains online – and while most of the staff are settled in some form of exile in Riga, some reporters continue to report from Moscow, even though official sources cite the definition of “foreign agent” as a reason to leave the conversation. to them.

The question currently hanging over Meduza and other independent sites is whether the government will try to block access to them within Russia. “They’re going to block us one day, probably sooner or later,” said Roman Badanin, Ms. Groysman’s boss at Proekt. He added that by then he was in California and plans to relaunch Proekt under the name “Agentstvo” in a nod to its shaky legal status.

Ionov, the nationalist activist who spearheaded the crackdown, said in an interview that Meduza was “not upset” by the return of crowdfunding. In fact, he took some credit. “I didn’t even ask them to give me a percentage,” he said on Friday, shortly before posting an “Empire Strikes Back” meme on his Telegram channel to celebrate the recent addition to his growing spam list.

Mr Ionov, who founded Russia’s Anti-Globalization Movement and advocated California’s secession from the United States, said it was just his version of the Russian law restricting critical news coverage. American Foreign Agents Registration ActThis requires disclosures from persons acting on behalf of foreign governments. The US government pressured Russian state television RT to register as a foreign agent in 2017, giving the Russian government both an excuse to target US government-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is battling appointment in the Russian court, as well as any foreigner. as a broader spectrum of critics with weaker ties to the government.

While much of the pressure on journalists in Russia appeared to stem from the government’s fear of imprisoned activist Mr. Navalny ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections, America’s investigations into Russia’s influence on the Trump administration also provided a useful pretext. But the main effect on the ground has been to make it harder for the Russians to see their country clearly and for journalists to report on it, or even stay there.

Kristina Safonova, a Meduza reporter, complained that an officer hit her with a truncheon during a protest she covered this year. After being tagged as a foreign agent, Meduza said she learned that the police investigation would focus on her: An official told her that she practiced journalism without a license and that 27-year-old Ms. Safonova could face 40 days in prison. imprisonment and a fine of approximately $4,000.

A few days later he went to Riga.

“I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly,” she said of her transformation from a young reporter to one of the growing numbers of Russian journalists in exile.

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