Russia labels news outlet Meduza an ‘undesirable organisation’

Authorities allege Latvia-based publication threatens Russia’s constitutional system and security, in latest move against independent media.

Meduza had already been branded a 'foreign agent' in Russia in 2021 [File: Ints Kalnins/Reuters]

Authorities in Russia have designated independent news outlet Meduza an “undesirable organisation”, effectively outlawing the site from operating in the country and banning any Russian from cooperating with it or its journalists.

Thursday’s designation is the latest in a years-long campaign by the Kremlin to curb independent media, in a crackdown that has escalated since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.

In a statement announcing the decision, Russia’s general prosecutor said the Latvia-based news outlet “poses a threat to the foundations of the constitutional system and the security of the Russian Federation”.

Meduza had already been branded a “foreign agent” in Russia in 2021.

There was no immediate response from Meduza, one of Russia’s most widely read independent news sites, though it did publish a news story on its website, including details about what the designation could mean.

“Undesirable organisations are banned from operating on Russian territory under threat of felony prosecution,” the article, published in Russian and English, said.

“Anyone who ‘participates or cooperates’ with such groups can face felony prosecution – an especially serious limitation for journalists who must speak to sources to report the news,” it added.

Those prosecuted for cooperating with an undesirable organisation can face heavy fines or even multiyear jail terms.

More than 50 organisations are currently on the “undesirable” list, including Russian investigative news outlets iStories and Proekt and Dutch-based Bellingcat.

Attempt to ‘exterminate’ outlets

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Russia’s Wagner private military group operating in Ukraine, had publicly called for Meduza to be placed on the list last July.

In a letter to Russia’s top prosecutor, Prigozhin attacked Meduza’s reporting on the war in Ukraine. He said articles that claimed sources inside the Kremlin wanted to remove Russian President Vladimir Putin from power, and that a second attack on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv was being planned, violated Russia’s strict censorship laws.

Shortly after invading Ukraine, Russia’s parliament passed legislation outlining jail terms of up to five years for “discrediting” the armed forces and up to 15 years for spreading “deliberately false information” about them.

Another independent news site, Mediazona, which reports on the legal system and law enforcement, said on Thursday its publisher Pyotr Verzilov had been accused of spreading “fakes” about the army, motivated by political hatred.

Verzilov was charged with violating the law because of social media posts about Bucha, the town near Kyiv where the bodies of hundreds of civilians were found after Russian troops pulled out.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said Verzilov “created a real threat of forming a false opinion among citizens about the goals and objectives of the special military operation in Ukraine”, state news agency TASS reported.

In a Twitter post on Thursday, Mediazona expressed its solidarity with Meduza, saying Russian authorities have, over the last two years, “constantly threatened journalists and gradually cut them off from their audience”.

“We hope that these attempts will fail miserably. We support Meduza unequivocally,” it said.

Similarly, Novaya Gazeta, another independent Russian newspaper known for its critical coverage of Russian affairs, said in a statement the latest designation is another attempt by the state to “exterminate” a popular outlet.

“We are certain that our colleagues are persecuted for their high professional standards in covering Russia’s criminal war against Ukraine,” Novaya Gazeta said.

“We stand with Meduza and urge every independent journalist to do the same.”

Upon passing the laws in March last year, Russian authorities moved swiftly to block access to dozens of websites – including Meduza’s – and dozens of Russian and international news outlets left the country.

Meduza has been based in Latvia since it was established in 2014. Its placement on the “undesirable” list was condemned by opposition figures on social media.

“The undesirable organisation is the handful of people who have seized power in Russia,” tweeted Ruslan Shaveddinov, an ally of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

Also on Thursday, a human rights centre named in honour of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov said Moscow city authorities had ordered it to vacate its premises.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies