Russia's attacks on media near breaking point, independent journalist warns

The Kremlin has named news outlets as foreign agents, which restricts advertisers and access

Roman Badanin runs The Project, an independent Russian media outlet that specializes in investigative reporting. The Project digs where relatively few Russian journalists dare go, looking for the truth about things from COVID in Russia's regions to details on the positions and properties of Russian president's supposed secret second family members. 

Doing that kind of work in Russia risks landing journalists in real trouble. And it scares advertisers away. The Project has a GoFundMe page to make ends meet. And they live with a lot of anxiety. Badanin thinks it's just a matter of time before their number is up with the media watchdogs in Russia.

"I would say it's the most dramatic period in terms of the number of attacks [on press], the number of draconian laws adopted by the Russian authorities and the situation is worsening at a pace that is really fast," Badanin tells Fox News.

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In fact, while President Biden was meeting his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Geneva, the parliament back in Moscow was pushing through legislation to further restrict social media in Russia. And Badanin sites the growing use of the dreaded "foreign agent" designation for media organizations, forcing them to effectively label all their content with the warning that it was "created by a foreign mass media or Russian legal entity performing functions as a foreign agent." 

The Kremlin now calls U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) a foreign agent, but the outlet has resisted caving to Moscow on this. As a result RFE/RL has been fined millions of dollars and is under enormous pressure, which may lead to its closing operations in Russia after having been invited in by late President Boris Yeltsin. 

Meduza, one of Russia's most popular news websites, already based abroad, in Latvia, has also been given the label. It means losing advertisers and access. And even the suggestion that the news has been cooked up by agents turns many consumers away. It can be a slow death.

The European Court of Human Rights has given RFE/RL's case challenging the "foreign agent" status priority.

"The clear intent of the Kremlin's campaign against RFE/RL and other independent media in Russia is to force these outlets to either abandon freedom of speech and journalist integrity or to abandon the profession," said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly.

Biden did say at his post-summit press conference that he brought the issue up with Putin in the context of the broader human rights discussion.

"I also raised the ability of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to operate and the importance of a free press and freedom of speech. "

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Badanin wishes somehow Biden had beaten the drum harder, been even more assertive on the issue.

He did say that West generally has been supportive of Russian media particularly through NGOs and that includes donations from individuals.

"I really appreciate that. Almost all Russian independent media organizations right now are registered abroad in one or another Western countries ranging from Lithuania to the U.S. and I know that a lot of foreign non-profit organizations are helping Russian journalists."

Why is this crackdown happening now when Putin would appear to be safely ensconced in power until 2036?

Because there will be a referendum of sorts on his rule and his party in September in the form of parliamentary elections in September.

"These elections are the real challenge for Russian authorities because of the rating of United Russia, which is the leading party in Russia. It's quite low. In my opinion [the increasing crackdown on media] is lined to the forthcoming elections," Badanin said, adding, "There could be fraud."

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And if that is the case, much easier to discredit those reports if they are the work of foreign agents.

Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny's organizations meanwhile were recently ruled "extremist" and have shut their offices.

They were encouraging something called "smart voting" which involves voting for any candidate not in United Russia in those upcoming September elections.