PRAGUE -- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has called on Russia to stop "targeting" journalists after one of its contributors lost an appeal against her inclusion on Russia’s controversial registry of “foreign agent” media.
The City Court in the western Russian city of Pskov on May 5 said the inclusion of RFE/RL contributor Lyudmila Savitskaya on the Justice Ministry’s list was lawful.
“Lyudmila is not a 'foreign agent' -- she, and RFE/RL journalists Denis Kamalyagin and Sergei Markelov, are Russian nationals providing objective news and information to their fellow citizens. We call on the Russian government to stop targeting journalists and blocking the Russian people's access to information,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement late on May 6.
Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.
Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media. At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its “foreign agents” list and to impose restrictions on them.
Activists have described the "foreign agent" legislation as “restrictive” and intended “to demonize independent groups.”
Savitskaya and four other people -- Sergei Markelov, a freelance correspondent for the North.Realities (Sever.Realii) of RFE/RL's Russian Service; Denis Kamalyagin, editor in chief of the online news site Pskovskaya gubernia and a contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service; human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov; and artist and activist Darya Apakhonchich -- were included in the “foreign agent” media list in December 2020. The ministry did not give any justification for why these individuals were listed.
'You Have Turned Everything On Its Head'
In court on May 5, Justice Ministry representatives presented as evidence against Savitskaya articles she had written about anti-government protesters, alleged torture in Russian prisons, and the blocking of electronic communications in the areas around prisons.
They also presented a large number of documents marked “for official use only” from the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, and other agencies that Savitskaya and her attorneys were not allowed to examine. They have said they will appeal the case to a higher court.
In her closing statement at the appeal, Savitskaya ridiculed the country's justice system saying the Justice Ministry was "fighting against the wrong people" as all she was doing was "simply" reporting the facts and writing "in such a way that the authorities pay attention to the misfortunes of citizens and help them with their problems."
"You have turned everything on its head, Justice Ministry representatives. You call a person whose work is to help people a 'foreign agent.' But the real foreign agents are not here in this courtroom. They are in the Kremlin and the State Duma," she told the court.
"They are the ones who every day are passing repressive laws, taking away the rights to life and liberty from citizens, and barring people under the threat of prison from speaking the truth. They are the agents of some sort of foreign-to-us-all totalitarian state. They are. Not me. I am a journalist and I remain a journalist," she added.
Savitskaya’s defense argued that none of the materials presented indicated that she was working at the behest of any foreign power.
In her remarks, Savitskaya noted that the Justice Ministry "made an interesting selection of my articles" in an attempt to "make me out to be a politician."
"You cleverly forgot to include my articles about veterans who are living in rotting shacks; about the prisoners in concentration camps, who at the state’s orders are huddling in railway-station closets; about the child diabetics who are not being given the medicines they need; about the Pskov paratrooper who voted for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin his entire life and died during a military mission in Syria and about his wife, who was not granted his military pension," she said.
"People in judicial robes and military epaulets with ranks bow obsequiously to our jaded authorities, which remain nonetheless an insatiable conspiracy. The law is finished and only terror remains. 'Do you think this regime will last forever?' I asked in court. The three in epaulets and the one in the judge’s robe remained silent. They all understand -- it is just that today [the system] came for someone else," she added.
In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL’s Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time on the list.
Earlier this year, Russian courts began imposing large fines against RFE/RL for failing to mark its articles with a government-prescribed label as required by rules adopted in October 2020. RFE/RL is appealing the fines.
RFE/RL has called the fines “a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation,” while the U.S. State Department has described them as “intolerable.”