Russia launched a crackdown on foreign media on Friday, with authorities announcing enforcement proceedings against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau over unpaid fines and newly designating the independent online outlet VTimes as a “foreign agent”.
Russian bailiffs showed up at the Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on Friday to notify the US-funded broadcaster about the launch of enforcement proceedings over unpaid fines.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said the broadcaster’s Moscow bank accounts were frozen in what he denounced as a serious escalation in the Russian government’s campaign to drive it out of the country.
“RFE/RL will continue to fight these desperate attempts by the Kremlin to censor uncomfortable truths,” Fly said in a statement. “We will not be silenced by these heavy-handed tactics and we will not abandon our Russian audience.”
Also on Friday, Russia designated The Moscow Times’ Russian-language partner VTimes a “foreign agent” as authorities pile more pressure on independent media.
VTimes was added to the list of “foreign agents” because it is registered in the Netherlands, the justice ministry said in a statement.
The news site was founded last year by the senior editors and journalists of Vedomosti business daily, who quit after the appointment of a pro-Kremlin editor in chief.
The ministry’s decision came less than a month after Meduza, a popular Russian-language news website based in Latvia, also received the controversial foreign agent label, which forced it to launch a crowdfunding campaign to survive the loss of advertising revenue. The Moscow-based First Anticorruption Media has also received the foreign agent designation.
The term “foreign agent” carries strong pejorative connotations in Russia.
Last year, Russia’s Roskomnadzor media watchdog ordered any media designated as foreign agents, including RFE/RL, to add a lengthy statement to news reports, social media posts and audiovisual materials specifying that the content was created by an outlet “performing the functions of a foreign agent”.
The move, which applies to nongovernmental political organisations and media receiving foreign funding, has been widely criticised as aiming to discredit critical reporting and dissent.
Roskomnadzor has filed 520 violation cases against RFE/RL, which could entail fines totaling $2.4 million.
In a call with reporters, Fly said that the broadcaster has refused to pay the fines because it considers them unlawful.
“We have been very clear throughout this that we will not pay these fines,” he said. “We believe that the labeling is illegitimate, it violates Russia’s own constitution. We aren’t going to back down in the face of this pressure.”
The broadcaster has asked the European Court of Human Rights to order Russia to refrain from enforcing the fines until the court can make a full ruling on Roskomnadzor’s moves, which RFE/RL contends violates the European Convention on Human Rights.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned Russia’s mounting pressure on the media as a sign of the Kremlin’s weakness.
The stand-off creates new friction in Washington’s ties with Moscow, which are already at post-Cold War lows over an array of issues including Ukraine, Syria, sanctions and the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
US State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter said the move was part of an attempt to deny Russians access to independent news sources.
“This is Russia’s latest attempt to suppress independent media and deny the Russian people access to objective news. We will continue to unequivocally support RFE/RL and its affiliates, and to stand up for freedom of expression, including for members of the press,” Porter told reporters.
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