SACHA PFEIFFER This is On the Media, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. In the months leading up to the Duma elections, the Russian government carried out a wave of crackdowns on dissenting voices, with the media bearing the brunt of it, but maybe not in the ways we've come to expect. This isn't a story of henchmen or former KGB, although they make a brief appearance. This is a story of death by bureaucracy. On the Media, producer Molly Schwartz brings us the story of how a few Russian journalists are navigating their confounding new reality
MOLLY SCHWARTZ On July 15th. Sonya Groysman lost her job.
SONYA GROYSMAN It wasn't the best day of my life, I can tell you.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Groysman is a 27 year old Russian journalist who used to work at an investigative news outlet called Proekt.
SONYA GROYSMAN I did a podcast which told the stories of Russian doctors who were on the front lines against coronavirus, which was based on doctors diaries. And it was the only broadcast that conveyed a realistic picture of what was happening in Russia's hospitals.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ But back in July, the Russian government went after Proekt, calling it a, quote, undesirable organization and basically banning it from the country.
SONYA GROYSMAN And desirable organization means that all the projects, all the things we did became illegal.
JOSHUA YAFFA Proekt was releasing one high profile, fascinating and impactful investigation after another.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ This is Joshua Yaffa, Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker.
JOSHUA YAFFA It specialized in the kind of brave, unflinching, hard hitting investigations that were hard to find and weren't being done by outlets based in Russia.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In Russia, there are certain people like Putin's allies who you can't touch, but Proekt went there.
JOSHUA YAFFA Russia's interior minister, people from the so-called siloviki, the very powerful top officials from the country's security services. They even wrote an investigation that appeared to suggest Putin might have a 17-year-old daughter from an extramarital affair, and both this young woman and her mother seem to benefit financially from certain ties to Kremlin linked institutions and banks.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ This is the kind of reporting that got the elite shut down, putting Sonia Groysman out of a job with her new free time. She took a trip to Sochi, a vacation town in the south of Russia,.
SONYA GROYSMAN Just to think what's next? What should I do now?
MOLLY SCHWARTZ On July twenty third, she was sitting on the coast of the Black Sea, just watching the waves.
SONYA GROYSMAN This day was stormy. It was rainy. And I just was looking at the waves. And the thought is like my life, you know.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ But then her reverie was cut short when her phone started buzzing like crazy.
SONYA GROYSMAN 20 messages in a minute. I started to get in.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ She opened one and clicked the link
SONYA GROYSMAN and the link to these, at least where my surname was 31. On this list,
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Sonya Grossman's name had been added to the Ministry of Justice's list of foreign agents.
SONYA GROYSMAN I realized that my life is going to change, right now.
[MUSIC RISES UP AND UNDER]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Since 2012, the Russian government has used this foreign agent label to shut down organizations it sees as antagonistic.
NEWS REPORT The wave of police raids against nongovernmental organizations, foreign cultural organizations and human rights groups continues in Russia with the latest targets, the Helsinki Group and Memorial, Russia's oldest human rights organization.
NEWS REPORT We are seeing a downright hunt for human rights groups. They want to force us to declare that we are foreign agents. They are hunting us down.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ They went after Transparency International, the MacArthur Foundation, the Election Monitoring Group Golos.
JOSHUA YAFFA This foreign agent legislation was continually expanded by the Kremlin to cover more and more groups and more and more segments of society.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ But in 2017, the law was expanded to specifically target the media. And in the last few months, they've been on a kind of spree.
JOSHUA YAFFA So this all began in April, first with the targeting of Meduza, an online publication that had been founded by journalists who had found themselves homeless during previous waves of media crackdown.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ A media startup called VTimes was named a foreign agent. Then the trickle became a stream and then a river.
JOSHUA YAFFA Then came Proekt. Then came an outlet called The Insider, which specializes in data driven investigations and often cooperates with Bellingcat. After that, we saw TV Rain Television Channel, which was the largest media outlet name to the Foreign Agent Registry.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ One of the most surprising things that happened in this time, the authorities started adding the names of individual journalists to the list. That's what happened to Sonya Groysman.
SONYA GROYSMAN To become a foreign agent in Russia. You have to publish something on social media or in media publications and receive a financial transfer from abroad. That's all. Even if your, I don't know, American grandma will send you 20 dollars and you post something on social media. Yes, you are a potential foreign agent.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV The Russian foreign agent law was specifically designed to destroy you, drive you out of business.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Alexey Kovalyov is an investigations editor at the news outlet Meduza. Brooke spoke to him when Meduza was first targeted,
ALEXEY KOVALYOV but not in one fell swoop. Like the government raids your offices and confiscates the electronics, and the rest of the journalists know. It's not like that.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ It's the bureaucratic hoops you're forced to jump through, says Kovalyov, that can be fatal for a news outlet.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV We have to put a massive, ugly legal disclaimer on top of everything we publish. And that includes all ads and promotional materials.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The disclaimer reads like a big scarlet letter of legalese. It says, quote,
[LEGAL DISCLAIMER PLAYS UNDER, IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ This news media / material was created and or disseminated by a foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent and or a Russian legal entity, performing the functions of foreign agent.
[END OF DISCLAIMER]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The same rules apply to Sonya Groysman.
SONYA GROYSMAN Even if I post, I don't know, flowers or my cat, I have to put this disclaimer.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ I checked out Groysman's social media, and that block of text, all caps, is in every post, every Instagram story, every comment, every response to a friend's comment.
SONYA GROYSMAN Every time I post something, I feel that I'm taking a risk.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ She'll be fined if she doesn't comply. First ten thousand rubles, which is around 140 U.S. dollars, then 50000 rubles, which is around six hundred eighty five dollars.
SONYA GROYSMAN And on the third time there is the prospect of a criminal case up to two years of prison.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Just six months ago, Russian journalists would jump from news outlet to news outlet as some were shut down and others started up. But now even that option is disappearing.
JOSHUA YAFFA They could become, you know, professional breakdance buskers who work in the Moscow metro or they could go, you know, gather mushrooms in the Siberian tiger forest and they'd still be foreign agents. Right. They sort of carry that designation with them.
[AMBI SOUND OF PROTEST PLAYS]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Last month, Sonya Groysman went to a protest with a small group of journalists outside the headquarters of the FSB. That's like Russia's main security agency. They took turns holding signs, rotating one by one.
SONYA GROYSMAN It is prohibited to protest in front of FSB building, but one person protests are not prohibited.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ When it was Greenspan's turn to picket, she took the opportunity to perform some political theater.
SONYA GROYSMAN I just came there with the sign on which I had written nothing more than the full text of this twenty four word disclaimer.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ THE disclaimer, you know, the chunk of legalese I just read you a moment ago, and she was only there holding that sign for a few minutes before she was approached by men in uniform.
[MAN BEGINS SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
What happens next is all captured on tape by Groysman. They grab her, take her to a police station and sit her down in a large assembly room. A portrait of Putin hangs on the wall. An officer starts to copy down the text on Groysman's sign to include in her arrest papers.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The police officer complains that the text on her poster is too long and the language is so burdensome.
[WOMAN SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ He asks Groysman if it would be OK if you just takes a picture of it with his phone instead of having to write it all out. Groysman tells him that she's required to put it in front of anything she publishes.
SONYA GROYSMAN And I was like: that's the law and you're a policeman, you know. It would be great if you read it.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The entire exchange is documented in a podcast that Groysman started with her former colleague, Olga Churakova, whose name was also added to the foreign agent list in July,
SONYA GROYSMAN We started recording a podcast called 'Privyet,Ty Inoagent', which means in English 'Hi, You Are Foreign Agent' about what life is like for us in this new reality.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In the second episode of the podcast, which, like every episode, starts with the disclaimer, there's a scene in which Churakova tries to get a job at a fast food chain that makes blini, the delicious Russian pancakes. Churakova calls and asks if they have any open positions.
[CHURAKOVA SPEAKING WITH MANAGER IN RUSSIAN PLAYS UNDER]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The woman on the phone says yes, they're looking for cooks and cashiers. Churakova asks if it's possible to get a job as a cook without any prior experience
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Yes, it's possible. Churakova then explains that she's a journalist, and she's been designated as a foreign agent.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The woman on the phone says she's never heard of this before, but asked Churakova to write to her supervisors and explain the situation
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Churakova does not get the job.
TIKHON DZYADKO It is like the sign that you are holding, on which there is a text. Don't work with him and don't talk to him.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Tikhon Dzyadko is the editor in chief of TV Rain or Dozhd in Russian. He told me about how it's the stigma of this foreign agent label that's been so painful for him.
TIKHON DZYADKO For example, when you are designated as foreign agent, almost 100 percent that people from the government would deny talking to you. These 24 words, it's not the worst part, but it's the stupidest part.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The worst part, he says, is the idea that they're traitors to their country.
TIKHON DZYADKO We think of ourselves as the Patriots and everything. What we're doing here, this TV station over 11 years of its existence, we are doing it for the best of our country. We just want our country to be better. I want my kids to live in a better place than the place where I grew up.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Dor Dzyadko, because he's Russian and he works for a Russian organization, and above all, he does this journalism because he really cares about Russia. That's what's made this foreign agent label so weird and confusing. But they've been anticipating some kind of pressure from the government because of what they were broadcasting last winter.
JOSHUA YAFFA If we want to isolate the most recent catalyst in this long story of increasing pressure and repression...
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Joshua Yaffa.
JOSHUA YAFFA It would be fair to talk about the poisoning and then return of Alexei Navalny,
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Alexei Navalny, the leader of the opposition, and official thorn in Putin's side. He was poisoned in August 2020, taken to Germany for medical treatment. Then he returned to Russia and was immediately arrested, which led to protests
JOSHUA YAFFA Not just in Moscow, but in dozens, if not 100 cities around Russia. I think the Kremlin was certainly spooked.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Tikhon Dzyadko said 10 million people watched their coverage on YouTube. And this is, I think, one of the most important parts of this whole story. Putin claims that Russia's foreign agent law was actually inspired by a law in the US. The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, which put a label on outlets like Russia Today, media that our Department of Justice considers foreign propaganda, but Joshua Yaffa of The New Yorker isn't buying it.
JOSHUA YAFFA I think it's a ridiculous and absurd comparison. As far as I understand. The foreign registration essentially ends there. In other words, you're added to the registry. You're not required to add some cumbersome disclaimer to everything you publish.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Being a journalist in Russia is kind of like a dance, perhaps the Tropak, the classic Slavic folk jig that you might know from The Nutcracker. The dancers do these complicated whirls and squats and kicks as the music speeds up to a frenetic pace. Leaving all parties panting for breath as the curtain falls, Russian journalists, too, are jumping and twirling quick on their feet, just trying to stay a few steps ahead of the Kremlin and still perform the essential parts of their job. And, despite what you might think, they are doing their jobs.
JOSHUA YAFFA Independent journalism in Russia is perpetually under threat and under pressure, but it's not completely gone. And I think that oftentimes in the American conversation, we don't acknowledge the fact that there are these journalists who are still managing. Despite all the difficulties thrown at them, do work that is extraordinary and worthy of our admiration.
SONYA GROYSMAN We can still report things and we can earn money. We can be in the profession.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ For Groysman's relatives who grew up in the Soviet Union, however, the fear is a little more ingrained.
SONYA GROYSMAN My grandparents think that I have to stop it, you know, just to be silent. Someone on the top will forgive you and then exclude you from this list. But we have YouTube, we have Instagram, we have Telegram. We can distribute the information all the ways. Yes, it would be harder and harder to work as a journalist, but all the people cannot be silent.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The tempo is gradually increasing, but for now, the dance goes on. For On the Media, I'm Molly Schwartz.
SACHA PFEIFFER That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz with help from Juwayriah Wright. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen, our engineer this week was Adriene Lilly. Katya Rogers is our executive producer.
SACHA PFEIFFER On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back in one week. I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.