The Kremlin’s war on independent journalism in Russia has escalated after the Proekt investigative media outlet was outlawed in an act of revenge for a series of deeply embarrassing revelations about Vladimir Putin and top Kremlin officials.
The rare decision to ban a critical media outlet by fiat is a bellwether for Russia’s new wave of investigative news outlets, which compete to publish damaging scoops about top officials and are now bracing for the Kremlin to employ similar pressure on them to shut down.
State media on Thursday announced that Russia’s justice ministry had added Proekt to a list of “undesirable organisations”, meaning its journalists must stop working for the site or face criminal prosecution, and added eight journalists, including Proekt’s editor-in-chief, Roman Badanin, to a register of “foreign agents”. Several reporters for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Russian news outlet Open Media were also declared foreign agents.
It is illegal for other news agencies to link to or directly quote materials from an undesirable organisation, meaning, theoretically, they would have to purge their archives of any reference to Proekt’s work or possibly face criminal charges. The status would also outlaw any efforts by Proekt to crowdfund; their donors could also face charges.
The assault on Proekt on critical and independent media in Russia has seen news websites like Meduza and VTimes declared foreign agents (the latter has since shut down), journalists from the student journal DOXA put on trial, the investigative arm of Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund declared “extremist”, and millions sought in fines against the US-funded RFE/RL.
But it is the first time that a news outlet has explicitly been banned under the law (the closest example is the closure of the media arm of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia) and appears to indicate how Proekt touched a nerve in the Kremlin by investigating top officials and sensitive subjects like Russia’s bungled Covid-19 response and its deployment of mercenaries to Africa.
Last week, Badanin and two other employees of Proekt were targeted with house searches by police who said they were investigating a four-year-old slander case. But Proekt’s employees tied the searches to their plans to release a damning investigation into the interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, which alleged that his family members had become fabulously rich since his appointment in 2012 and that he was suspected of having ties to organised crime.
Proekt has also published investigations into some of Putin’s most feared associates, including Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov and the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Using leaked property and passport information, the website also contended in an article last year that Putin had a daughter by a secret mistress.
For years, Kremlin-friendly businessmen had bought out or reined in critical outlets, warning journalists not to cross the “double lines” or be fired.
But the emergence of new investigative outlets like Proekt, which reduced their footprint in Russia to avoid government pressure, has left the government with fewer tools to control their output besides declaring them foreign agents, bankrupting them, or seeking other ways to close them down.
Proekt did not immediately comment on the government decision on Thursday.
• This article was amended on 20 July 2021 to clarify that the Open Media company referenced here is a Russian news outlet.