(Moscow) – A Russian court has issued a stifling fine to The New Times, an independent Russian magazine, for supposed failure to report foreign funding, putting it at risk of closure, Human Rights Watch said today.

Evgeniya Albats, editor-in-chief of The New Times, profile picture.

© 2010 The New Times

The New Times is known for its critical coverage of the government’s domestic and foreign policies. On October 25, 2018, the magistrate court #367 of Moscow's Tverskoy district fined the magazine an unprecedented 22.25 million rubles (about US$337,000) for allegedly failing to report its income.

“The case against The New Times is yet another example of Russian authorities using the country’s growing arsenal of restrictive legislation to silence independent voices,” said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “The prosecution should drop the charges and uphold Russia’s obligations to respect freedom of speech.”

The prosecutor’s office began investigating The New Times in April after a member of parliament, Nikolai Ryzhak, requested an investigation. Ryzhak alleged that on April 2, he had received a letter from a “concerned citizen” asking him to look into the magazine’s possible violation of the Federal Law on Mass Media’s provision about financing. A 2015 amendment to this law required mass media outlets to report all funding from foreign sources.

Ryzhak alleged that from February 2017 to April 2018, The New Times received 5.4 million rubles (US$82,000) from the Fund in Support of Freedom of the Press. The magazine had created the fund specifically to collect donations from its readers and other supporters so that it could continue to operate. In 2014, the Justice Ministry designated the fund a “foreign agent.”

The investigation found that between March 2017 and April 2018, The New Times had received 22.25 million rubles (US$337,000) from the fund, based on evidence provided to the prosecutor’s office by Rosfinmonitoring, the Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service, a governmental agency designated to monitor money laundering and terrorist financing.

The magazine’s chief editor, Yevgenia Albats, told Human Rights Watch that 22.25 million rubles was the The New Timestotal budget for those 12 months. She said that as the contributors to the Fund in Support of Freedom of the Press were Russian nationals, The New Times had not considered the money to be foreign. However, in June, The New Times received a notice from the prosecutor’s office asserting that the money received through the “foreign agent” foundation constituted foreign funding and had to be reported. The New Times immediately complied in full, Albats said. Nevertheless, the prosecutor’s office took The New Times to court.

In September, a justice of peace at the magistrate court #367 of Moscow's Tverskoy district issued a decision not to initiate proceedings against The New Times and returned the case to the prosecutors’ office, citing the three-month statute of limitations for that category of offense, which would have expired on July 11. The prosecutor’s office appealed the ruling.

At the appeal hearing on October 25, the Tverskoy District Court categorized the alleged violation as part of a continuous administrative offense,which has a different statute of limitations, and returned the case to the justice of the peace who then fined The New Times the exact amount cited by the prosecutor as unreported foreign funding. Albats told Human Rights Watch that the fine, which she described as “unprecedented in Russia’s media history,” came four days after she had interviewed a leading Russian political opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, on her popular show on the Echo of Moscow radio station. Albats said that she believes the authorities fined her magazine in retaliation for the Navalny interview.

The New Times will appeal the decision and has received messages of support and donations to help fight its case. If The New Times loses, it will have 60 days to pay the fine before its bank account is blocked and the magazine is closed.

The representative on freedom of media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Harlem Desir, called the fine “an unprecedented decision, which is detrimental to freedom of the media in the Russian Federation” and urged the authorities to “repeal this decision.” The Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland said: “Because it could force the outlet to shut down, the excessive fine endangers Russian democracy by disrupting media freedom as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.” Jagland also said that, “the principle of proportionality should be respected in any fines made so that media freedom is not disputed.”

Media freedom and media plurality are a central part of the effective exercise of freedom of expression, Human Right Watch said. The ability to practice journalism free from undue interference, to peacefully criticize government, and to express critical views are crucial to the exercise of many other rights and freedoms. The European Court of Human Rights stated that the media has a vital role to play as “public watchdog” in imparting information of serious public concern and should not be inhibited or intimidated from playing that role.

“Russian authorities have claimed for years that the ‘foreign agents’ law and similar regulations on foreign funding are about transparency and the rule of law,” Denber said. “But the case against The New Times makes it clear once again how these laws are designed to be used as technical pretexts to target and intimidate independent voices.”