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Russia designates independent media VTimes ‘foreign agent’

May 14, 2021

Russia on Friday designated VTimes, an independent online media outlet, a “foreign agent” as authorities pile more pressure on liberal media.

The decision by the Justice Ministry came less than a month after Meduza, a popular Russian-language news website based in Latvia, also received the controversial label, forcing it to launch a crowdfunding campaign to survive the loss of advertising revenue.

VTimes has been added to the list of “foreign agents” because it is registered in the Netherlands, the ministry said in a statement.

The news site was founded last year by the senior editors and journalists of Vedomosti business daily, who quit after the appointment of a pro-Kremlin editor in chief.

Also on Friday, US-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe said its bank accounts had been blocked after a visit by bailiffs to its Moscow office over unpaid fines.

The station is facing fines of 70 million rubles ($950,000).

In Washington, the State Department said it was “deeply troubled” by the blocking of the accounts.

“This is Russia’s latest attempt to suppress independent media,” State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters, adding that Russians “deserve access to a wide range of information and opinions”.

Groups or individuals identified as “foreign agents” in Russia must disclose their sources of funding and label publications with a tag or face fines.

The label is also a deterrent for potential advertisers and the stigma makes it hard for journalists to carry out their work.

Kremlin critics say that during his two decades in power President Vladimir Putin has silenced most dissidents and muzzled the media.

The few opposition and independent media that still operate in Russia are under huge pressure.

Legislation behind the term “foreign agent” was originally passed in 2012 to cover NGOs.

It was expanded to include media organisations in 2017 after Kremlin-funded RT (former Russia Today) was declared a foreign agent in the United States.

Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe — designated a “foreign agent” in 2017 — has recently faced a flurry of huge fines over non-compliance with the law.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.