At least since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression it has been obvious that Russia under Putin has developed into a dangerous dictatorship. Human rights activist and journalist Sergei Parchomenko describes how Putin has brought the media into line in recent years.
After Vladimir Putin resigned as president in 2012, the regime increasingly focused on freedom of the press. While initially only certain individuals were considered “foreign agents,” now almost anyone can be designated an enemy of the state.
The second phase of the development of state pressure on the Russian media landscape became evident immediately after Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012. Putin’s third term, made possible by the fraudulent manipulation of the interim presidency – swapping offices with Prime Minister Medvedev and then reversing “castling” – was preceded by a brief period of escalating protests, particularly in Moscow and St Petersburg and other major Russian cities.
Sergej Parchomenko, fleeing from Moscow to avoid being seized by the Russian authorities, first found shelter in Greece, but now also in Germany. He is a human rights defender, opposition activist, representative of NGOs and civil society, including the 2022 Nobel Prize winner “Memorial International”, but above all a journalist and publisher. As a staunch opponent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he continues his work from Europe against the Russian war of conquest and against the Putin dictatorship.
This text by Parchomenko is part of a paper from the “Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom”.
Gross and brazen electoral fraud, first in the State Duma elections (November 2011) and then in the presidential elections in Russia (March 2012), sparked mass protests and demonstrations. They were attended by hundreds of thousands of people, many representing social groups still fairly loyal to the Putin government: entrepreneurs, employees of state and large private companies, professionals, intellectuals, students…
The Putin regime responded with violent repression, which began with the massive beating of participants in the May 12, 2012 peaceful demonstration on Bolotnaya Square. This provocation, planned in advance by the police and special services, was the trigger for the first mass show trial, which became known as the “Bolotnaya Trial”: Dozens of people, mostly completely random demonstrators, were arrested on false charges such as assaulting police officers, violence against officials etc. sentenced to imprisonment.
The authorities viewed the protests of winter and spring 2011/12 as an attempt at a “color revolution” (modeled on popular movements in North African countries and some former Soviet republics in the 2010s), allegedly inspired from outside and by foreign political forces, secret services and subversive organizations hostile to Russia.
Foreign NGOs, foundations, human rights movements and – above all – foreign media have been accused of funding and directly organizing the protests. And subsequently, their Russian counterparts, who have at least some connections to foreign partners, have also been accused of organizing a “color revolution”.
In response to these fabricated “external threats,” the Putin regime implemented a major reform of Russian legislation that radically changed the situation in the sphere of public non-profit organizations and the information environment around them. This fight against the phantom threat invented by Putin and his entourage to explain their repressive intentions has proven to be the basis for a very long-term strategy, and the authorities’ actions still follow this logic today, ten years later.
It is safe to say that it was this focus on the “external threat” that eventually led the Putin regime to disaster – the start of aggression against Ukraine that eventually led to war between totalitarian Russia and the whole of civilized Russia world led. President Putin and his power apparatus saw Ukraine’s 2014 “revolution of dignity” as yet another “color revolution” inspired solely from outside and a direct threat to the stability of their own power in Russia.
Total control over the legislature and direct control of the State Duma by the presidential administration made it possible to set up a veritable legislative assembly line as early as the early 2010s. It was during this period that the top legislative bodies of Russia earned the nickname of “mad printers” for their readiness to enact the most clumsy and stupid repressive laws at a tremendous pace. The set of legal innovations of that time was generally aimed at gradually undermining the foundations of civil society life in Russia, including, of course, freedom of speech.
Among the first disruptive innovations were the laws (the relevant laws were passed by the State Duma in 2012 and drastically revised in 2015) restricting the right of foreign companies to be shareholders in Russian media and the right of foreign managers to head editorial offices.
Foreign ownership – followed by foreign investment and key deals with influential global advertisers and powerful international advertising agencies – has been stripped of several major publishing companies in Russia. Many of them have been partners with international media corporations such as Axel Springer, Hachette, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and others.
The laws passed at the time to restrict the advertising market dealt a serious blow to the economic independence of media companies and destroyed entire areas of advertising activity: advertising for beer, alcohol, medicines and dietary supplements, medical and financial services, and tobacco was advertised in print media and on television consistently prohibited or severely restricted.
However, the most extensive was the process of introduction to Russian law and the subsequent development and expansion of the institution of “foreign agents”. The concept of “foreign agent” first appeared in Russian legislation in July 2012, when the State Duma passed the law “On Non-Commercial Organizations”.
As a result, the status of “foreign agent” could initially only be granted to Russian non-profit organizations. Over the next four years, the status of “foreign agent” was further developed and extended exclusively to areas unrelated to the professional media.
However, in late November 2017, amendments to several laws – including media laws – were passed that extended the notion of “foreign agent” to include media companies. Authorities justified the decision by citing the need to respond to the US Department of Justice’s request for state propaganda companies Russia Today and Sputnik to be registered as “foreign agents.”
The next step was taken in January 2018: several members of the Duma and the Federation Council (including the notorious Senator Andrei Klishas, who would be one of the key figures in the development of the huge package of repressive changes to the Russian constitution in 2020) brought a bill one that extended the status of “foreign agent” so that it could be assigned not only to a company but also to an individual.
The law required a person to meet only two criteria: first, posting a “communication to an unspecified audience” (i.e., a text, an announcement, a post, a comment, whatever) and second, receiving Income from any foreign source, regardless of how much or for what reason the money came from abroad and whether or not it was related to the publications. In December 2019, this draft was adopted and signed by President Putin.
“Putin’s Net – How the KGB Retook Russia and Then Set their Eyes on the West” by Catherine Belton.
This law remained dormant for a whole year: it was only on December 28, 2020 that the Russian Ministry of Justice published the first list of five people recognized as “foreign media agents”, including one of the oldest and most well-known Russian human rights defenders Lev Ponomaryov, the young women’s rights activist Daria Apachonchich and three regional journalists who had worked with various media outlets affiliated with Radio Liberty.
At the same time, also in December 2020, the Russian legislation was amended with an article granting the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor’s Office the right to recognize as a “foreign agent” any person who is professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of intelligence in the field of Russian defense and security, arms production and arms trade, assessing the state of the Russian Armed Forces and analyzing their prospects.
This effectively bans the profession of military analyst, reporter, commentator – in general, any journalist with any interest in defense or security issues. This was perhaps the first case of a direct and radical ban on one of the journalistic professions. Several prominent Russian war correspondents – such as Pavel Felgengauer and Alexander Golz – have since practically stopped speaking publicly or publishing their writings.
The last update and expansion of the legislation on “foreign agents” took place only recently – in July 2022, when the Law “On Control of Activities of Persons Under Foreign Influence” was adopted: it will come into force on December 1, 2022 . A distinctive feature of this law was the acknowledgment that any person in Russia could be recognized as a “foreign agent” virtually arbitrarily, without the need to provide specific facts for receiving funding – or any material benefits at all – from foreign sources.
Instead, it is now sufficient to designate a suspected person as “under foreign influence”, leaving the definition of that influence and its origin entirely undetermined. In addition, the new law gives law enforcement agencies the ability to recognize anyone working for an NGO or media organization recognized as a “foreign agent” as a “connected person” and many of the formal requirements and restrictions imposed on a “foreign agent” to extend to them.
At the same time, several articles have been added to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, aimed at shifting the liability of “foreign agents” from the administrative to the purely criminal level, so that they can be punished with imprisonment instead of fines, in order to subject the foreign agent to an equal measure of arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
One of these new articles (Article 275.1 of the Criminal Code) specifically established the criminal liability of “confidential cooperation with a foreign state, international or foreign organization”, i.e. it practically brought the practice of criminalizing “uncontrolled” contacts with foreigners prevalent during the Stalinist repressions and the darkest period of Soviet post-war stagnation.
All these successive innovations, expansions and tightening of the system of appointing “foreign agents”, controlling their activities and punishing violations of the “rules and requirements accompanying the status of foreign agent” imposed by law enforcement agencies have led to one sophisticated and multifaceted system of prosecuting citizens whose activities the Russian regime considers “unreliable” or “hostile”.