oDR: Interview

'Russian officials simply could not ignore us': inside the attack on Meduza

Alexey Kovalev, a prominent Russian journalist, explains why the state is trying to silence independent outlets by naming them ‘foreign agents’

Ilya Yablokov
20 May 2021, 12.00am
Сотрудники "Медузы" сняли видео, в котором благодарят своих читателей за поддержку
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Meduza staff thank readers for their support in a video

Today’s attacks on press freedom in Russia are sadly all-too predictable. In the wake of constitutional changes that mean president Putin could in theory rule until 2036, allegations of elite corruption and a broader crisis of legitimacy, the Russian regime is gradually destroying all possible sources of criticism ahead of parliamentary elections later this year.

Russia’s justice ministry has now declared Meduza, a leading independent media organisation, a “foreign agent” – a legal term used to define organisations that pursue “political activity” while receiving funding from abroad.

This decision means that every text published by Meduza, including on social media, must inform readers that it has been authored by a foreign agent with the following message:

“THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND/OR DISSEMINATED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA OUTLET PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT.”

For an online publication with 15 million monthly users, this move looks fatal, particularly for its financial model. Within a week of the foreign agent declaration, most of Meduza’s advertisers had left. In response, Meduza asked readers for donations, and a week later had collected enough money to support themselves for two months. Still, Meduza had to terminate a number of staff contracts, and drastically reduce the number of projects it publishes.

This is not the first time the people involved with Meduza have been attacked by the state. Two of the site’s founders, CEO Galina Timchenko and editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov, previously worked for the leading Russian news site Lenta.ru. In March 2014, against the background of the Euromaidan revolution and the ensuing war in Ukraine, the owner of Lenta.ru, Alexander Mamut, fired Timchenko.

Practically the entire editorial team followed her out the door. Some of them, including Kolpakov, moved to Timchenko’s new Meduza project, based in Riga, that same year. In 2019, Meduza journalist Ivan Golunov was detained in Moscow on fabricated drugs charges, which were widely seen as politically motivated.

openDemocracy spoke with Alexey Kovalev, a prominent journalist who is currently Meduza’s investigations editor, about what the foreign agent label means for the future of Russia’s independent media.

How unexpected was the decision to declare Meduza a foreign agent on 23 April?

We have lived with the feeling that something like this could happen for a long time. As our founder Galina Timchenko has said in many interviews, when Lenta.ru began to match Russian state media holdings on audience numbers, it began to pose a danger. This is what led to its dispersal – and what made Meduza.

We, too, lived with the feeling that we had “not been noticed”. Meduza was just some website, some kind of Latvian media outlet. Obviously, those times are over, but I cannot make any assumptions as to why, because again this declaration of us as a foreign agent is not the result of a court decision. There was no prosecution that put forward any arguments of its own. You cannot speak in your defence and you do not even know there is this process to include you on a list somewhere.

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Meduza has had to cut salaries and staff in the wake of the "foreign agent" decision | (c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

As we speak, it’s just been reported that another Russian publication has been included on the list of foreign agents: VTimes. This whole contrived process of becoming a foreign agent is particularly laughable. Meduza is a Latvian publication not because we love Latvia so much, although it is a wonderful country, but because we don’t have the opportunity to work normally in Russia. Journalists are first pushed out of Russia, with the danger of house searches always hanging over your head. Then when you do leave, you face additional punishment.

In general, what happened to Meduza is not the most radical option that the authorities could have chosen. There are three scenarios for getting pushed out of the Russian media space at the state’s request. The first is to become an “undesirable organisation”. Then that's it, there are no options left. Any cooperation with an “undesirable organisation” is a criminal offence for a Russian citizen. The second is the option of extrajudicial blocking of the media’s website. Then it’s all over, off you go. People simply won’t be able to get on the website.

“The foreign agent option is deadly in the long run, only it’s not the authorities who are killing your media: you have to destroy it yourself. The state does not block you, but you have to let advertisers go, fire employees yourself and cut salaries yourself”

The third option – the foreign agent option – is also deadly in the long run, only it’s not the authorities who are killing your media: you have to destroy it yourself. The state does not block you, but you have to let advertisers go, fire employees yourself and cut salaries yourself. You do it yourself, and the state does nothing. It just requires you to add some terrible bureaucratic postscript to absolutely all your publications, including posts on Twitter.

If it is possible to bypass internet blocks, why is Meduza publishing the official “foreign agent” rider on its website?

We are not some kind of “guerilla” publication. We are not an underground publication, nor are we affiliated with a political party or the opposition. We have a fairly substantial flow of donations and words of support from the very people we write about – people from Russia’s government ministries. This is where our readers are.

It’s a mistake to think that Meduza is a liberal opposition publication. People in the very “Kremlin towers” that we write about read us. Aside from closed Federal Protective Service [FSO] opinion surveys, these people have nothing to rely on, and they understand that they do not know what is happening in the country. Therefore, our most valuable sources have been the middle managers – the people who have the best understanding of what’s really going on.

These people are better informed than the bosses living in the clouds, the Kremlin managers, and they’re better informed than the lower levels, who do not have access to all the information. These people, who have worked in the system for 20 years, have a lot to lose, but they do not have the moral strength to endure what is happening right now. And most often they go to Meduza.

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Alexey Kovalev | Source: Facebook

I will give you an example of what kind of media Meduza is and who reads it: when the coronavirus pandemic began last year, several different, unrelated FSO officers wrote to us with complaints: “Look, we are all getting infected and dying here, and the ambulances don’t even arrive.” These guys did not go to RIA Novosti or TASS [official state media] with this information, they knew that these media wouldn’t write about it. They went to us. We had two such cases in a row.

If Meduza had continued to be a publication with enough staff that could fit in a three-room apartment, then yes [we could bypass the designation], but at the time we were declared a foreign agent, we had more than a hundred people working for us. One hundred people cannot produce content only for a Telegram channel or app. This is a large publication with infrastructure and sources, and it’s clear that Russian state agencies and ministries won’t respond to official information requests from a Telegram channel.

"Meduza is a publication that exists and has an audience of tens of millions of people. They were not just being nice to us. Russian officials simply could not ignore us"

Despite our “dual” status [Meduza is a publication based in Riga with an office in Moscow, but not registered with Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media watchdog], we were perceived as an important Russian media outlet. Roskomnadzor’s license just means you get admission to Yandex news [a major Russian news aggregator], where we weren’t really represented anyway. But this license is a stranglehold that hangs around your neck and imposes even more restrictions on you. So we didn’t apply for it.

We didn’t even have an official office in Moscow for some time. Only our status, which we had earned, allowed us to communicate with government sources who perceived us as a publication that you had to deal with. Because we did not have a license and representation, our official information requests could be ignored and they could not answer them. But the officials themselves didn’t do this – it is unprofessional and would put them in a rather unattractive light. In fact, Meduza is a publication that exists and has an audience of tens of millions of people. They were not just being nice to us. Russian officials simply could not ignore us.

When Meduza launched in 2014, its founders said they were aware the site could come under pressure, and had made plans to circumvent official bans. What happened to that?

Those strategies became irrelevant. Of course, you can attach a guide on how to use a VPN, how to move from mirror site to mirror site, like [Russian opposition outlet] Grani.ru or Belarusian publications. All of this is possible. Since 2014, there have been hundred new versions of these anti-blocking techniques, but our size does not allow us to bypass them. We cannot exist in that kind of regime. Sure, you can carry out investigations using SPARK [a Russian company information database] and leaked documents without getting comments from all parties and participants. But that isn’t for us.

Lenta, Meduza’s predecessor, was closed in 2014 over its coverage of Ukraine and Crimea, and due to Putin’s authoritarian turn. What has Meduza been doing that has changed the relationship between you and Kremlin, aside from audience growth?

This is one of those questions that I will not answer – because I don’t know the answer. Any answer will be wrong. Who makes these decisions? What are they guided by? Who lobbies for them? We don’t know anything. Our own sources don’t say anything either. We have some working hypotheses, but these are assumptions. Why was VTimes recognised as a foreign agent today? How much weight do Meduza and VTimes have? We don’t know what the people in charge are thinking, or even who they are exactly.

How does Russia’s law on foreign agents affect the country’s media system more broadly?

The 2017 amendments to the law on foreign agents, which was originally passed in 2012, were announced as a response to the decision of the US Justice Department to force the Russian channel RT to register as a foreign agent in the United States.

Okay, they have the right to do this. But if Meduza was declared a foreign agent due to the unfriendly behaviour of Latvia towards Russia, then there is the Latvian state media company [which could have been designated a foreign agent, but hasn’t]. It also has a website in Russian. Take it out on them! That would be an appropriate response.

"I don’t believe that I will be killed tomorrow. But I am realistically preparing for the fact that they will hack me, seize all my equipment, find some blackmail material on me"

But this is not the goal: the goal is to crush freedom of speech in Russia. The only thing that connects us with Latvia is that our editorial office was based there until mid-May. I have no relations with the Latvian state, I don’t even have a Latvian visa. I have been there twice in my life, for three days in total.

All these in-kind responses to the troubles of Russian state media abroad are nonsense. If it were not for this pretext, the Russian authorities would have come up with something else. This is like sanctions, which, in theory, should work as a means of changing behaviour towards Russia. But no one expects that Latvia or the US would reconsider their position on Russia because of the attack on Meduza.

The very label of a foreign agent was invented in such a way that it can neither be properly implemented, nor ignored. It entails increasingly large fines, which a US Congress-funded publication could afford to pay – or it could take its employees to Kyiv. But Meduza cannot afford anything like that. We are a private media outlet that has no money for these fines. Therefore, you have to comply with these laws, which destroy you with the utmost humiliation. In this process, you are both the subject of the execution and the object of it.

It is clear that our readers can accept the situation. For many, the banner about being a foreign agent is automatically cut out by their ad blocker, but advertisers who pay quite generously for advertising are not ready to do so. Ninety percent of advertisers have left us. Our entire business model has collapsed.

I understand how contrived Russia’s foreign agent law is, but pay attention to how quickly Meduza, a non-state media outlet, agreed to implement this law. At the stroke of a single law, you are forced to display a sign that you are ‘different’ and you are ‘dangerous’. After submitting to the state, later they will start killing you altogether.

Well, I’m still alive, I’ve had a pay cut and my workload has increased, but they haven’t killed me.

You haven’t been killed, but they will start killing Russian journalists.

It’s not that they will start, but that it will be stretched out over time. Russia is at the top of the list for the number of attacks on journalists.

Of course, I keep my eyes open when I’m walking around, I choose my routes carefully. I put my phone in a signal blocking bag if I go to an important meeting. You need to understand that I am well aware of my privileges. There are offices of all the major world media outlets in Moscow. I communicate with them because I speak English, because I had the opportunity to learn it. My colleagues in Russia’s regions are in much greater danger.

I don’t believe that I will be killed tomorrow. But I am realistically preparing for the fact that they will hack me, seize all my equipment, find some blackmail material on me. The Russian tabloid press will, for example, publish my emails or chat logs.

Or they’ll put you in jail.

Let’s say they put me in jail. I am still at a lower risk of this than your average Russian businessman. How many governors are in Russian jails right now and how many journalists? These foreign agent warning banners apply to all media, but we all understand who they are aimed at, because any Russian state media can ignore these warnings. These laws were not invented for them, nor to inform readers that we are some kind of terrorist organisation. These annoying requirements are aimed at making the life of independent media worse.

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The "Foreign agent" rider that Meduza has to attach to all its publications | Source: Meduza

“Foreign agent” is a powerful label that, at some point, has a psychological effect on how people will perceive you and others. This is not only about fines and complicating Meduza’s work. It’s about preparing people to believe that they are surrounded by enemies.

And it works. All those sources that used to communicate with us have stopped talking. When your name appears next to the phrase “foreign agent”, even anonymous sources are afraid that they will be found out somehow. It’s a powerful, emotionally charged term that works exactly as the creators intended. People begin to fear us like the plague. The label is like a leper’s bell in the Middle Ages.

Meduza’s prominent position in the Russian media market is undeniable. Many look up to you. What effect do you think the current situation will have on relations with regional media?

We support our colleagues in the regions, and now they support us. Although they are in a much worse situation than we are, in terms of protection and in terms of money. They place our banners, our crowdfunding calls. We might have a stripped-down status, but we are still in a stronger place than them.

How will relations with regional elites change? Will journalists start to avoid writing for you?

We no longer have a budget for freelance writers. We will not go to Vladivostok, so to speak, because there is no budget for reporting trips. If they want to help us, they will help; if they are afraid, then OK.

We are both engaged in studying disinformation and propaganda. You do a lot to expose pro-Kremlin propaganda. What has been the focus of Russian state propaganda against Meduza?

I would not say that Russian state propaganda against Meduza has changed a lot since we launched in 2014. What do they say? “Meduza is opposition media [based] in Latvia, they’re liberals from abroad.” This campaign would be greatly helped if there were some real information, real compromising evidence on Meduza. Then they would really roll it out. Therefore, the propaganda just focuses on general words about “agents” and the “influence of the West”.

The low intensity of this campaign is not an attack on Meduza alone. If they wanted to destroy us specifically, the scale of the propaganda attack would be different. But we see that this is happening everywhere, with Russia’s entire civil society. Nobody ever set a specific task to find out exactly how “evil” Meduza really is.

Who has been receiving this sort of attention instead?

The main target of the state’s information campaign is Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its leader. In comparison with this evil, everyone else fades into the background. We are lesser demons. The main enemy, who they throw all their resources at defeating (including firing people from their jobs), is Alexey Navalny.

"If Meduza is totally blocked in Russia, then it will not be possible to continue it in its current form. Meduza is a publication that circulates, talks to people, communicates with sources"

Let me ask you a provocative question: could this foreign agent declaration have any positive consequences?

I would have answered this question differently an hour ago. But now, with the VTimes decision, it looks like everyone will be declared foreign agents and there will not be enough money for donations for VTimes and other media. Meduza and VTimes are far from the last on this list. Still, we have had a giant wave of support. I didn’t even have time to answer all the messages, so it means that we weren’t just publishing texts into the void. That’s the most important thing. It’s one thing when you look at the numbers of views on your articles, which can reach hundreds of thousands, but when the people behind the numbers write to you, it’s a different feeling. This inspires you more than all the demoralising stuff put together.

It seems that independent Russian media outlets are switching to austerity and self-sufficiency as a result of the pressure, but that it has also prompted more solidarity from journalists and the public.

Yes. Every day we get a flood of encouraging messages. True, one of the consequences of our new status is that we had to disconnect two self-sufficient YouTube projects, as now they’re associated with a toxic brand. For them, the new foreign agent status would be fatal – but they can still continue to work as they are and receive advertising.

Are you working on a technical solution to being blocked in Russia?

By the time we are blocked, we will probably have a Plan C in place. We have a very powerful development team, we launched our donation campaign very quickly. We can try and develop something for a long time, this is what the development team is for.

When we were blocked in Kazakhstan, we added a button to our mobile app that allowed users in the country to continue reading us. We can afford this kind of move when one percent of our audience comes from Kazakhstan, for example, but these solutions do not scale. You can work like this with an audience of 10,000 people, but when it’s 10 million, it doesn't work.

If Meduza is totally blocked in Russia, then it will not be possible to continue it in its current form. Meduza is a publication that circulates, talks to people, communicates with sources. Being completely abroad, we will turn into an emigré media outlet, and I am not sure if I am ready to work in this. We’ll have to write everything from secondary sources. This lowers the bar for quality.

Ninety percent of our readers, besides a dedicated core, could also stop following us. That would be something different: you can stick the name Meduza on it, but it’s better to come up with a new name. Blocking will be the end of Meduza. Maybe the beginning of something else, but the end of Meduza for sure.

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