Another nail in the coffin for freedom of expression and civil society in Russia
In January 2023, Russia added Meduza, the country’s leading independent media outlet, to its list of ‘undesirable’ organisations. Later, in March, the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International was also labelled as ‘undesirable.’ They are not the first ones — and most likely not the last.
What does ‘undesirable’ mean?
According to the law, which came into force in 2015 as a follow-up to the Russian foreign agent law, ‘undesirable’ organisations are those posing a threat to the foundation of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the defence capability of the country, or the security of the state.
‘Undesirable’ is a more severe term than ‘foreign agent.’ While ‘foreign agents’ can keep functioning, albeit with burdensome restrictions, ‘undesirable’ organisations are required to cease their activities in Russia.
Moreover, Russian citizens and legal entities are not allowed to cooperate with such organisations, either on or off the territory of Russia. A website that distributes information materials of an ‘undesirable’ organisation may be blocked, and people that participate in the activities of ‘undesirable’ groups may be criminally prosecuted and subjected to high fines and significant jail time.
Who are ‘undesirable’ in today’s Russia?
Initially, the law was used to crack down on foreign and international NGOs, mainly those receiving funding from the United States and Europe. In 2021, however, Russian authorities started to use this ‘weapon’ against independent media outlets, labelling them as ‘undesirable’ and forcing them to suspend their activities.
The first news organisation to suffer this fate was The Project (Proekt Media), a media outlet publishing well-researched, unflattering, and sometimes embarrassing investigations into Russia’s ruling elite. Later, in 2022, the authorities placed on the ‘undesirable’ list investigative news outlets iStories, The Insider, and Dutch-based Bellingcat.
Overall, 22 organisations of various types were recognised as ‘undesirable’ in 2022. Also, Russian political activist and ex-head of the pro-democratic opposition movement Open Russia Andrei Pivovarov was found guilty of ‘carrying out activities of an undesirable organisation’ and sentenced to four years in prison.
In 2023, Russian authorities designated the independent news outlet Meduza an ‘undesirable’ organisation, effectively outlawing the site from operating in Russia and banning any Russian from cooperating with Meduza or its journalists.
Why should the world care?
While Meduza and other ‘undesirable’ media outlets keep working from abroad, it has become way more difficult for them to distribute their materials, cooperate with speakers and find new heroes in Russia, as well as receive donations from their readers.
Their ‘undesirable’ status poses legal risks to Russian citizens, both inside and outside the country, who participate in their activities. Sharing hyperlinks to their materials on various platforms, giving comments to their correspondents, or donating to help finance their operations may lead to criminal prosecution by the state. For Russians living abroad, this means the risk of losing the opportunity to travel to their homeland. For those residing in Russia, this means the risk of going to jail.
Declaring Meduza ‘undesirable’ also seems like a warning to all other Russian independent journalists. After Meduza was labeled a ‘foreign agent’ in 2021, the authorities proceeded to label other news organisations, including the leading independent television channel TV Rain (Dozhd) and the renowned investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Repeating this situation, this time with the label ‘undesirable,’ is likely to lead to much more dramatic consequences.
To learn more:
How Do Russia's 'Undesirable Organizations' and 'Foreign Agents' Laws Work? - The Moscow Times
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Foreign agents’ and ‘undesirables.’ Russian civil society in danger of extinction? / European Parliamentary Research Service, March 2022 (PDF)