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A smart phone user reads MBKh Media news site, one of three news outlets whose websites were blocked on August 4, 2021.   © 2021 Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Images

With Russia’s September 19 parliamentary elections fast approaching, every day begins with new reports of arbitrary arrests, interrogations, and other attacks on critical voices. Today there were three new victims of the Kremlin’s war against free expression. Independent news outlets MBKh-Media, Open Media, and Open Rights announced they would shutter after the governmental communications oversight body, Roskomnadzor, blocked their websites.

The outlets extensively reported on public protests, corruption, persecution of civic and political activists, and other abuses. Thousands read them. 

When the authorities blocked their publications on August 4, the websites’ editors hoped they could remove any offending items and be allowed to operate again. But that night, Roskomnadzor said the orders came from the prosecutor’s office and were related to supposed involvement with banned foreign organizations linked to exiled Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Russia’s repressive law on “undesirable foreign organizations” authorizes prosecutors to ban as “undesirable” any foreign or international organization deemed to undermine Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. It enables the courts to impose a maximum six-year prison sentence on anyone found guilty of “involvement” with “undesirables.” On August 5, the three news outlets announced their closure in light of “high personal risk” to journalists and other staff.

Two weeks earlier, Team 29, a leading Russian association of human rights lawyers and journalists, had to close under similar circumstances. The authorities blocked their website, indicating that they viewed the group as closely linked to an “undesirable” Czech organization.

Also in July, the Justice Ministry added The Insider, which jointly with Bellingcat, had published an investigation into the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, allegedly by Russia’s security services, to its registry of “foreign agent media.” Now they must label any publication as “foreign agent material” and file regular, detailed reports on their work and funding.

The “foreign agent media” registry currently includes 17 individuals and 16 media projects. Some have already stopped working while the others find it increasingly difficult to keep afloat due to stigma driving away readers and advertisers and insurmountable reporting requirements. Among those on the registry are five members of The Project, an investigative outlet that the authorities banned as undesirable last month over its reporting on high-level corruption.

The space for free expression in Russia is shrinking dramatically. The authorities should end their crackdown, or Russians will find themselves in an information vacuum.

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