As It Happens

Russian journalist worries he could be branded a 'foreign agent' under new law

It's already hard enough being a journalist in Russia, but now Andrei Soldatov has to worry about being branded a "foreign agent" in his own country. 

Reporters, bloggers, even everyday Russians using the internet could be targeted

Andrei Soldatov is an independent journalist and author in Moscow. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press)


It's already hard enough being a journalist in Russia, but now Andrei Soldatov has to worry about being branded a "foreign agent" in his own country. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law Monday that gives the government the right to register bloggers, journalists and social media users as "foreign agents."

The law applies to anyone who receives payment from abroad, or distributes content produced by media outlets registered as foreign agents under an existing law. 

Soldatov, Moscow-based journalist and author whose work is often published in the U.S., spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what the law means for him and his colleagues. He is the editor of and co-author of The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia's Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad.

Here is part of their conversation. 

How might this new law affect you?

They could use this law to attack me and other independent journalists and to brand us as foreign agents. 

And then what happens to you after ... you're listed as a foreign agent in your country working as a journalist? 

My publications … should have this byline that I am registered as a foreign agent so that the public would not be put in [the] dark about my true loyalties. That's supposed to be the goal of this law. 

Also, I should be registered with the Russian [ministry] of justice, and then it's not absolutely clear what might happen next. 

Probably I would [have] to provide my financial information and to provide everything about my relationship with foreign media to a special federal agency. At least that's what's going on there for the organizations which are branded foreign agents right now. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has has signed a bill into law that gives the government the right to register bloggers, journalists and social media users as foreign agents. (Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva/The Associated Press)

There are, I understand, nine news organizations already on this foreign agents list, and that includes Voice of America .... and they're funded by the United States government. So what do you think is now the push behind this latest law that would actually sweep up people like you? 

The idea of this law is that I should not be necessarily paid by these organizations. 

And if I, say, tweet or just post some information which was previously published by one of the news organizations on the list, say Radio Free Europe, that could put me in a position that the government would request me to go and register as a foreign agent.

Just one retweet would be enough.

And what happens if you don't do that, if you don't list yourself as a foreign agent? 

I could be fined. But it's not only about fines. Right now we have another legislation under consideration [under which] a foreign agent or someone who failed to get registered as a foreign agent, he could be arrested up to 15 days. And that could be just the beginning.

Why do you think Vladimir Putin is doing this right now? 

To be honest, he perfectly understands that we have a lot of people in Russia who want to, say, blame all our problems on some outside forces. 

It would give some ammunition to people who think that … bad news or critical reporting on what the Kremlin's doing is paid and financed and orchestrated by some hostile forces abroad.

We know that the Kremlin has a great deal of control over a lot of the mainstream media right now. Are people seeking out alternative sources to know about things like the public protests and demonstrations? Are you … and other independent voices in journalism becoming a force that Mr. Putin needs to reckon with? 

Most of the Russian population still relies on TV and major print media, and all of them are under the control of the Kremlin. But if something happens, like a local crisis in some regions, people tend to rely on independent media. 

And that's exactly what is considered to be a big threat for the Kremlin.

We've seen what happened when NGOs working in Russia were declared foreign agents and it became difficult for them to work. They are being raided. They're being watched. What effect will this have on people like yourself?

I think that people who are already determined to stay in our profession and to publish what they think is important, they would do what they believe is important and they would go on.

The problem is that I think and I fear that it would have a big effect on, say, what ordinary people would post online.

And given the fact that the only space, free space, for expressing our opinions is online, that would have an effect and that would have an impact on what you can read and watch on the Russian internet.

I mean, if it covers journalists who simply distribute or share content abroad — which is what you're doing, you're sharing this knowledge with us in Canada — could you be declared a foreign agent simply by virtue of doing this interview with us?

First they need to find proof that I get some funding from you.

Because they believe that people — I mean critical people, people who are troublemakers — they can't do these things on their own. 

They do not believe in any ideas which could drive people to do something. They really believe that it's all about money. That's why funding is an essential part of this legislation too.

Journalists, they don't work for free. And we have lots of investigative teams in Russia right now, and they co-operate with news organizations all over the world, including me.

So if I would do something like an investigation with some independent media like you based in another country, that could put me in this position.

Soldatov says he could be targeted by the new law because he freelances for U.S. publications and has published books in the U.S. (Submitted by Andrei Soldatov)

But if I came over to Moscow and I looked you up and said, "Thanks so much for that interview you did," and brought you a gift, would that put you in hot water?

Yes, absolutely. Because there is a special line in the legislation that it's not only about money, but about any kind of a gift or equipment given to this person.

Is there any hope for you and other independent journalists to fight this law?

I've been writing about a very sensitive topic, the Russian security services, since 1999. I'm still able to do that because, look, we live in a globalized world. I cannot have my books published in Russia. But thanks to the internet, I can publish my books abroad.

And I hope that the books would be translated into Russian and find their way into Russia.

We still have some options, and I try to be optimistic.

Written by Sheena Goodyear and Sarah Jackson with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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