Russian NGOs struggle with Justice Ministry warning to call themselves ‘foreign agents’ in print

russian ministry of justice The Russian Ministry of Justice. (Source: minjust.ru)

Russia’s Justice Ministry has warned 12 homegrown non-profits that they’ll face more fines and shutdown unless they display in their printed, distributed, and Internet publications that they “perform [their] functions as a foreign agent,” Interfax reported.

The new edict was greeted by one NGO head, who while speaking with Bellona via Skype asked to remain anonymous, as “yet more bullsh*t to choke all voices in Russia but one – the Kremlin’s.”

The Ministry letter said warnings were issued to Bellona Murmansk, Bellona’s Northwest Russian environmental office, Memorial human right center, Memorial’s information center, the Sakharov Center For Human Rights, Transparency International’s Russian research center, the Committee Against Torture, and the Civil Assistance charity for refugees and internally displaced persons.

It also said warnings went to the Siberian Press Development Institute, the Maximum support center for discrimination victims, the Resource Human Rights Center, and the St. Petersburg-based Civil Control rights group.

Failure to comply, according to the letter, could result in fines from 300,000 to 500,000 rubles ($5,200 to $8000) – fines severe enough to break almost any Russian NGO – or eventual closure.

NGO Grafitti The office of a Russian NGO defaces with the words "foreign agent."

The blanket warning from First Deputy Justice Minister Sergei Gerasimov to NGOs demanding they print “foreign agent” on all their publications that Bellona Murmansk received came the same day the US-based MacArthur Foundation said it will pull its operations out Russia because the restrictive laws for foreign organizations had made it “impossible” to continue.

The 2012 NGO law requires any nonprofit that receives funding from abroad and engages in vaguely-defined “political activity” to formally register with the Justice Ministry as a “foreign agent” and display the designation on all their publications on pain of fines and closure. In July, President Vladimir Putin gave the Justice Ministry broad powers to name foreign agents itself – forcing NGOs to try to fight their name off the list in court.

Obey, disobey, does it make a difference?

Meanwhile, NGOs are struggling with how to handle the new Ministry warning. Some have vowed to fight the self-appellation in court, others are trying to keep up with the rules and out of court, where fees and more fines could bankrupt them. Yet other organizations have chosen to ignore the law altogether.

The turmoil is due to the fact that “foreign agent” is synonymous in Russian with “spy” or “traitor.” Forcing organizations to publish the label on their publications – especially media operations like Bellona.ru – discredits in the eyes of the general public anything an NGO has to say.

This is especially thorny for Bellona.ru as the single website in Russia entirely devoted to publishing objective news on the country’s environment. Over the last half a year has had an average of 70,000 page visits per month, according Christian Rekkedal, the head of Bellona’s IT department.

That the “foreign agent” label could delegitimize news from its Murmansk bureau among its devoted readership is infuriating to senior editors with Bellona’s broader international news operation.

Bellona Murmansk’s director, Andrei Zolotkov, said the group is complying with the new Justice Ministry warning, and has indicated on articles published on Bellona.ru by Murmansk reporters from March 19 on were written by foreign agents. The Bellona Murmansk further sent screen shots to the Justice Ministry to show the label was there.

The subtext on Murmansk articles reads that, “This material is presented by the Murmansk Regional Environmental Organization Bellona Murmansk, which was registered on the roster of NGOs fulfilling the function of a foreign agent by decision of the Ministry of Justice of March 19, 2015.”

Articles produced by Bellona’s journalists in St Petersburg and other parts of Russia, meanwhile, do not bear the designation, as only Bellona Murmansk was singled out as a foreign agent.

Anna Kireeva, Bellona Murmansk’s senior reporter and a Bellona.ru editor bridled at the forced inclusion of the label on her articles.

Anna Kireeva Anna Kireeva, Murmansk's lead reporter and an editor on bellona.ru (Photo: Bellona)

“We are not fulfilling the function of foreign agents – we are informing Russian citizens about the state of their environment, which it is our constitutional right to do, and their constitutional right to read,” she said. “We’ve been doing it for more that 20 years and suddenly [the Justice Ministry] thinks that’s political activity and registers us as foreign agents.”

She added that, “what’s important to the Justice Ministry is to see our articles marked with the foreign agent label – but what is important to us is to spread information about the environment, and we’ll keep doing that regardless of what labels they force us to take.”

Articles from Murmansk published in translation on Bellona.org, Bellona’s international news site, will not carry the foreign agent label.

Some groups grudgingly acquiesce, others vow to fight in court

Bellona Murmansk is not alone in begrudgingly swallowing the bitter pill forced on it by the Justice Ministry on July 22.

Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the committee Civil Assistance, said that her organization had indicated it’s inclusion on the foreign agent roster on its website.

She also said that, “We are also publishing photos of the people we help and because of whom we are considered foreign agents – these people are children.”

Lev Ponomaryov, leader of the movement For Human Rights, told Interfax on Wednesday his organization will file a lawsuit to contest the warning issued by the Justice Ministry. “This warning contains nonsense,” he said.

Alexander Cherkasov, the head of the human rights center Memorial, also said his group will be filing with courts to have itself removed from the list of agents.

In the meantime, Kireeva said she didn’t expect Bellona.ru’s readers to be deterred by the foreign agent label on Murmansk bureau articles – and that it’s only real purpose is for the group’s traditional detractors to sling mud.

“Honestly, I don’t think anything changed in the attitude of the population of Murmansk region to Bellona [since we were labeled foreign agents,]” she said. “We have our supporters and we have our opponents – the only new thing is that authorities can say ‘you are agents, you work on foreign cash’ when they have no real arguments to the environmental issues we present.”

Charles Digges