Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has created a chaotic situation in Russia, with Western sanctions and a new law that punishes people for criticising the war sparking an exodus of people from the country.
Press freedom in Russia was already severely restricted, but the war has sounded the death knell for some of the last independent media outlets.
Russian journalist Roman Anin is the editor-in-chief of the independent Russian news portal iStories – the “i” stands for “important”. Anin, 35, has been living in exile since Russian authorities last year labelled him a foreign agent – a title used by the Kremlin to mark undesirable organisations receiving funding from Western countries. Most iStories journalists are now based outside of Russia.
Anin was given this status after exposing corruption and cronyism in Russian politics and finance, including construction contracts for the Sochi Olympic Games. He also identified the owner of one of the world’s largest and most luxurious yachts.
Anin spoke to VICE World News about being labelled a foreign agent, and the cost of daring to tell the truth about Putin’s regime.
Putin signed the foreign agent law in 2012. When did it first affect your life?
We noticed it when it was first adopted. At first, we thought it was a law against the non-profit sector aimed at NGOs that support human rights, especially in the region of Northern Caucasus. In general, it is essential to understand that plenty of NGOs in Russia support human rights, and they are dependent on funding from the West because the Russian state gives them nothing. This does not mean that they are working against the Russian state. They aim to help people, and for that, they need funding. If it doesn’t come from the state, they will look abroad.
For example, there is a huge problem with HIV in Russia. Millions of people are sick, but the state isn’t helping them. The only ones helping were people from the civil sector – the now so-called foreign agents that are being strangled by the Russian state.
As the situation with freedom of speech and media freedom got progressively worse, it became evident that the state would start chasing independent journalists. After all, one of the first things Putin did when he became president in 2000 was that he took control over NTV, the most popular TV channel at that time.
How did he do it?
He raided the organisation and put his friends in charge. It did not all happen at once, but in a slow transition that took several years.
After that, Putin started taking control over all the TV channels, including state television. Then, he went after newspapers. Those who wanted to continue independent reporting started founding small media outlets registered abroad. That way, they thought they could protect themselves without having to censor their work.
That is when the Kremlin decided to extend the foreign-agent law from non-profit organisations to media outlets and individual journalists.
An amendment to the foreign agent law was made in 2017. From then on, it became apparent that reporters not willing to work for censored media, the state media, would be proclaimed foreign agents.
For instance, I am now parallel to being the head of a foreign-agent media outlet, a foreign agent myself. So I am technically a double foreign agent (laughs).
Can you take me back to the moment when you found out that you’re now a foreign agent?
Last August, I was waiting for a train at the Riga (Latvia) station, and then I got a call from a Russian journalist. He was asking me to give him a comment. I asked them what it was about, and he said, “about you being a foreign agent”. I asked him when this happened, and he told me it happened just now.
I didn’t end up taking my train. I went to the shop, bought champagne and chocolate, and called my team, and we had a great, great party.
I expected this to happen at some point.
The [website] Meduza was the first to get it, then Projekt, one of the best investigative platforms in Russia. Their journalists were not only labelled as foreign agents but the outlet was proclaimed as “undesirable”, which is, according to Russian law, a crime. The head of an “undesirable” organisation can be sentenced up to six years of prison.
Also, nobody is allowed to cooperate with an undesirable organisation. This means nobody can interview them, cite them, repost their content or even like their posts on social media. If someone does so, they too commit a crime. It’s sudden death. All media that had cited them had to delete whole articles; it’s like deleting history.
The Kremlin wants to erase all negative mentions of them. It’s happening all over the internet.
You said both you and your media platform iStories got the label simultaneously. What is the difference between being labelled as an individual and a company?
I have to do double the work. As an individual, I am obliged to send detailed annual reports of my spending to the Ministry of Justice. I have to disclose all my income and expenses to the very last penny. I am obliged to save all the receipts, even if I get myself a coffee.
I am technically obliged to put a disclaimer of being a foreign agent under everything I post, like, comment on, and even on my business card. I have to put it on every piece of information that I distribute.
So even if I like somebody’s comment on Facebook, I am obliged to comment with a 220 character long disclaimer stating something along the lines of "this comment was liked by a foreign agent."
If you look at the Instagram profile of iStories, our social media editor has to put this disclaimer when she’s replying to our readers.
If you violate this, say you forgot to put this disclaimer under a heart [emoji], you get fined. If you violate it twice, you can be sentenced to four or five years in prison. As the head of a foreign-agent media company, I can go to prison for longer, up to six years.
For me as an individual, social media is not a big deal because I am not on social media, but I do have to send the reports.
What role do social platforms play in Russia?
I used to be naïve and think that platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Google and Apple go by their values, but judging by them deleting the Navalny voting app upon Putin’s request, I don’t trust that these platforms don’t give a damn about human rights or freedom of speech.
Let’s take YouTube, the Russian state is top of the list of those requesting the website to delete content. And in many cases, YouTube does so.
The fact they followed autocratic orders from the Federal Security Service is really sad because we can’t spread information without these platforms.
Today, the media world is built on social networking apps. If they delete you from their stores, there is no way you can share your stories.
Roman, you escaped Russia and are now living in exile... Why?
There is a criminal case against me. The authorities listened to my phone calls, followed me, kept files on my family, and went after my friends. Imagine that you’re having a drink with a friend, and as soon as you step out of the bar, there is police waiting for you, asking your friend for identification and then following your friend home.
So, when I went on holiday last spring, planning to come back to Russia. But when I spoke to my sources and colleagues, everyone told me it was a bad idea because there was a risk that Russian authorities would arrest me.
I wanted to go back to show them I was not afraid that no one would intimidate me. But after some time, I came to the conclusion that it would be incredibly selfish. How would my arrest affect my mother, my family and my friends?
Of course, it’s ridiculous to be a journalist without being able to live in the country you are writing about. But in my case, I had no choice.
Is emigration the only solution for independent journalists under threat from the state?
A lot of journalists have left journalism altogether and gone on to PR departments of banks where they make good money. But inner immigration (moving to a different sector within the same country) doesn’t mean freedom. It means that you are not allowed to say what you think and tell the stories that need to be told. This is a case of the Russian state winning and achieving exactly what they want using intimidation tactics like court cases and foreign agent status.
Are there any advantages to being a foreign agent?
Today, if you’re not a foreign agent, people don’t trust you. Many know that if you have the label of a foreign agent, the Russian authorities don’t like you. So it’s somewhat of a “truth-teller” label.
And how did it affect your work?
Before, I would spend the majority of my time writing and editing stories – I would spend time on journalism itself. Today, I spend about 80 percent of my time on things that have nothing to do with journalism, like talking to lawyers and filing reports. So, in a way, the Russian state has achieved what they wanted: to stop journalists from doing their work because it’s so time-consuming to do all the bureaucratic work.
You used to work for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where five of your colleagues were murdered. Now, you are under a lot of pressure. Would you consider stepping away from journalism and doing something else?
No story is worth a journalist dying, so if that threat becomes real for my colleagues or me, I would. The problem is that we are optimists and think that even the most dangerous stories will not become the reason to kill us. So during almost 15 years of my career as an investigative reporter there was not a story that I had not published.
Ten years ago, I would tell you that I wanted to be a journalist to make this world a better place. Now, I think of Russian journalists more as historians.
It is our job to save history for future generations. So that young people 20 years from now know that Navalny did not poison himself as mainstream Russian sources said, so that young people know who was really fighting in Ukraine.
If we don’t capture these stories, no one will imagine if future generations know Navalany as some guy who tried to poison himself on a plane.
Can you ever get rid of the “foreign agent” label?
No, some journalist once asked the representative of the Ministry of justice, and he said the only way to get rid of the label is to die.