Dozens of Russian independent media have been labeled "foreign agents" in the run-up to parliamentary elections, which are now only three weeks away.
As of August 31, the Ministry of Justice website lists 43 media outlets and journalists and 76 civil society groups as "foreign agents." Another 46 groups have been given the label of "undesirable organization."
The list includes large news outlets and prominent Russian journalists who have investigated President Vladimir Putin and his allies. The U.S. Congress-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are among those named.
Russian journalists who spoke with VOA saw the labeling as an attempt by the Kremlin to destroy independent media and prevent any protests about September's parliamentary elections or the 2024 presidential vote.
The designation is also affecting an election-monitoring group and candidates for the opposition Yabloko party, who were ordered to indicate their affiliation with "foreign agents" on campaign materials.
The legislation was introduced in 2012. It was amended in response to the U.S. ordering Moscow-funded news groups to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 2017.
Since then, Russia has applied the label broadly to independent media outlets and critics and has told others they must indicate their connections to named agents.
The Justice Ministry did not respond to VOA's request for comment.
The foreign agent label is "another mechanism" to fight dissent, Yabloko party candidate Alexei Krapukhin told VOA.
Krapukhin's election campaign has called for an end to repression and for protests over the resetting of presidential terms that would allow Putin to run for a fifth term.
But when Krapukhin sent a campaign video to Moscow Media, which oversees TV channels and radio stations, he was told to either remove the mention of Yabloko or indicate the party's affiliation with registered agents.
Russia's state-run Central Election Commission said that because Yabloko nominated two candidates affiliated with "foreign agents," the party must indicate the relationship in at least 15% of all campaign advertisements, including those on TV and voting ballots.
Krapukhin successfully challenged the order. But, he told VOA, "the Kremlin is creating an information cocoon around the upcoming election."
"Independent media are the lens for people to look at the state. If there are no independent journalists, there is no understanding of the country's problems," Krapukhin said.
Tainted by label
Requirements under the foreign agent law are cumbersome and can lead to penalties and turn away potential business, some journalists said.
When the Justice Ministry labeled Russia's last independent TV channel, Dozhd, a foreign agent in August, the channel's editorial board called the decision "insidious."
The ministry said in a statement that Dozhd received more than 130,000 euros ($153,000) from the European Commission for EU-Russia coverage and that it distributes material from foreign mass media, including VOA.
In June, the station was removed from the Kremlin press pool after covering rallies for jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and it is one of the few remaining channels providing independent coverage of protests.
Now the station must indicate that every report on TV, the internet or its social media platforms was produced by a "foreign agent."
"We are required to tag everything, even Instagram stories," Dozhd Editor-in-Chief Tikhon Dzyadko said. But with a large number of posts, "there is always the possibility that we will simply skip this marking (if) someone is tired or forgets."
If that happened, Dzyadko said, the penalty would be huge, including up to two years in prison if fines for noncompliance are not paid.
RFE/RL has filled a case with the European Court of Human Rights after being fined millions of dollars since January under the law.
A more serious consequence, Dzyadko said, is that "business may not want to deal with us. Big money is known to love silence. And being included in the list of foreign agents means that you are an enemy of the state; you are potentially dangerous."
Dzyadko cited the case of independent news website Meduza, which lost advertising after being labeled a foreign agent earlier this year.
'People will not be silent'
Since a constitutional referendum last year cleared Putin to run for a fifth term, 25 journalists and seven media outlets have been labeled foreign agents by Russia.
At first the action appeared linked to the parliamentary elections, but now it seems the 2024 presidential election is the focus, said Dozhd journalist Ekaterina Kotrikadze.
"The goal is to drown out liberal ideas and free speech before the elections in 2024, as the Kremlin is eager to avoid repeating the path of Belarus," Kotrikadze said. "They are doing everything so that there are no large protests, large rallies — so that they do not have to use that much force as (Belarus President Alexander) Lukashenko."
But, she said, the Kremlin's plan will not work.
"Russia is such a huge country, and there are many honest free journalists and political figures. People will not be silent."
In some cases, individual journalists as well as their newsrooms are listed as foreign agents.
When Russia designated Vazhnye Istorii (Important Stories) — an outlet known for investigating Putin and his allies — as a foreign agent, it listed six of the news group's journalists.
Those people must now register as legal entities, submit reports to authorities and add a 'foreign agent' label to all their public social media posts, including personal ones.
"I am not a foreign agent. This law is a shame, and it's illegal," Dmitry Velikovsky, a Vazhnye Istorii journalist, told VOA. "I am not a media outlet, I am a (Russian) citizen who writes articles in the media and writes what he wants on Facebook."
Velikovsky believes he and his colleagues were included in retaliation for reporting on Putin's family and allies.
"All those personally listed were investigative reporters who covered the Panama Papers leaks, where Putin's childhood friend Sergei Roldugin appears," Velikovsky said, adding that Vazhnye Istorii also investigated the transfer of billions of dollars from Russian state banks and businessmen to the accounts of people close to Putin and large Russian companies.
His colleague Irina Dolinina, who is also on the list, told VOA the label "overcomplicates life and puts personal safety at great risk."
"On every post on any social media and even in public chats, I have to put this huge humiliating mark, and now I have to open a legal entity to report my personal spending to authorities," she said. "All 'foreign agents' are a couple of steps away from being in prison."
The situation in Russia has deteriorated significantly compared with the environment during the parliamentary elections five years ago, said Vasily Vaisenberg, editor in chief of news agency Zakon.
"In 2016, parts of the society had certain hopes," Vaisenberg said. "There is no hope now."
The journalist also works with the election monitoring group Golos (Voice), which in August was listed as an "unregistered foreign agent."
Vaisenberg said it was unclear what restrictions authorities might place on independent observers.
A few days before Golos was added to the list, Central Election Commission of Russia member Igor Borisov had proposed identifying observers associated with "foreign agent organizations."
Borisov was cited in articles saying the observers would not necessarily be banned, but "labeled accordingly."
Alexei Kurtov, president of the Russian Association of Political Consultants, told VOA that the current climate "forces all the media to be more careful, more restrained."
"Many news outlets seem to have to stand on tiptoe, not knowing what direction the wind blows," Kurtov said. He added that Russians who want uncensored information would "have to read between the lines. Again."
But in some cases, media outlets added to the Justice Ministry list have closed down.
Investigative outlet The Project was shuttered after the company and some staff were added to the register in July.
Maria Zheleznova, a former Project journalist who is still listed as an individual "foreign agent," said on Facebook that the label is equivalent to "an instant ban on activities threatened by immediate prosecution for the creator."
Mikhail Rubin, former deputy editor in chief for The Project, told VOA that the previous tactic of self-censoring on some issues, such as critical coverage of Putin, is no longer enough.
"A huge number of media outlets in Russia have chosen this tactic of survival. They do not touch Putin, they don't conduct their own investigations, they don't write about Navalny, but otherwise they are trying to conduct some kind of transparent journalism," Rubin said. "No, guys, it doesn't work anymore."
Rubin believes Russia will soon demand "absolute demonstrative loyalty" from all media groups.
Authorities are already demanding complete loyalty, even from newspapers that are popular among the elite only, Rubin said, adding, "This is the call to the Russian elite that they should demonstrate absolute loyalty to Kremlin."
This story originated in VOA's Russian service. Ksenia Turkova, Rafael Saakov contributed to this report.