Supporters of one of Russia’s last independent media outlets have raised enough money to pay a court-imposed penalty widely seen as politically motivated.
On Tuesday, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists member Yevgenia Albats said she had received more than $373,000 in donations — well beyond the fine imposed by a Moscow court in October.
“We’ve done it!!!!!! Thanks to everyone!!!!!” Albats tweeted earlier in the day.
The court fined Albats and the online magazine The New Times more than $340,000 for allegedly failing to report donations received from readers submitted via the nonprofit Fund in Support of Freedom of the Press. The fine represents one year’s operating costs.
Albats, The New Times’ editor-in-chief, told ICIJ she believed most donations came from Russian citizens and were exempt from Russia’s so-called “foreign agents” law that would have required the news organization to disclose foreign donations.
Russian businesses are afraid to give us ads, because any association with an opposition magazine implies that they are not exactly loyal to Putin
“I wasn’t surprised by the fine, because I know the punitive nature of the regime, which is run by a KGB operator,” Albats told ICIJ. “I’ve been writing about the KGB my entire life, so I know the guys.”
Russia introduced laws in 2012 that required organizations to register as foreign agents if they receive foreign money and are engaged in loosely-defined “political activity.” Human rights, LGBTQI and environmental associations were among those hit with fines and other penalties for failing to do so, according to Human Rights Watch. Russian authorities extended the law to media outlets in 2015.
Since then, Russia has further restricted the freedom of independent media. Last year, Russia’s parliament approved measures to force news organizations that receive non-Russian funding or are based outside Russia to file regular reports and identify themselves as foreign agents.
The foreign agent laws make it difficult to find local financial support, Albats said.
The New Times is now available online only after it suspended its print edition and closed its office last year due to financial difficulties.
“Russian businesses are afraid to give us ads, because any association with an opposition magazine implies that they are not exactly loyal to [president Vladimir] Putin,” Albats said.
“All of them are afraid there will be all kinds of punitive action.”
The New Times is one of the only remaining independent political publications operating from inside Russia.
“I don’t believe in long-distance political journalism,” Albats said. “ I believe you have to share the risks with your readers, especially when it comes to such a harsh regime as the one we have in Russia.”
Russia’s recent measures are part of a “foreign agent” tit-for-tat between Russia and the U.S.
The U.S. intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment of election interference described the news channel RT, which broadcasts within the U.S., as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.” The Department of Justice, which monitors foreign lobbying within the U.S., later ordered RT to register as a foreign agent.
“Over the last five years, the Kremlin has adopted a bunch of laws against independent media and, of course, the foreign agents law was one of them,” said reporter and ICIJ member, Roman Anin. “With this law, they can close any media in Russia.”
Anin said he believes Russian authorities want to implement further laws that would allow individual journalists to be classified as foreign agents.
“That’s what happening in Russia. And The New Times’ case proves that it’s going to worsen.”
Albats told Human Rights Watch that it appears that authorities fined The News Times in retaliation for an interview with opposition politician and Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny. Albats, who also hosts a popular radio program, aired the interview four days before the court’s decision.
By Tuesday, donations from Russian readers smashed through the amount required to meet the fine.
Albats said she will appeal the decision but knows that this may not be the end.
“We have a saying here in Russia: Do what you must and come what may.”