[Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the launch of Meduza’s subscription service on April 29, shortly after the initial piece was published]
Meduza, a prominent Russian-language independent news publication, was labeled as “foreign agent” by the Russian Justice Ministry late last week. The move poses an existential threat to the outlet, which has relied mainly on advertising. In response, today Meduza launched a subscription service, appealing to readers that “only you can save us now”.
“We always believed we could build a media that would earn on ads and work for readers for free”, reads a statement from Meduza. This is especially important in Russia, they add, where independent media are few and demand for honest content is massive.
“We built such a media. It took us 6 years. The Russian authorities destroyed our business in a day”, the statement continues, further explaining that Meduza has already implemented a list of measures, including closing its offices and introducing 30% to 50% pay cuts.
The reader revenue model, currently structured as voluntary support (i.e., not a paywall) is a last ditch attempt to save the publication. In a sign of the times, Meduza is accepting payments in cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, Ethereum, BNB and Smart Chain.
More from The Fix on a similar story from Russia: Ex-Vedomosti journalists embark on tough path to (re)build an independent financial media in Russia
The designation came on Friday, April 23, based on a 2012 law that has been used to target foreign-funded media. RFE/RL’s Russian Service was added to the list in 2017. Recently, the law was modified to also allow labeling individuals as “foreign agents”.
Meduza is headquartered in Latvia, but both its coverage and business are primarily focused on its Russian audience. Although being labeled a “foreign agent” does not directly prevent Meduza from operating, it effectively creates several major impediments for the publication’s work, the outlet claims.
First, Meduza depends on advertising (it famously pioneered a successful native advertising model on the Russian-languge market). The publication fears it will soon lose a bulk of major advertisers who will fear being associated with a “foreign agent”. According to the outlet’s chief editor Ivan Kolpakov, the “designation destroys our business.”
Second, the designation might harm Meduza’s reporters, who will now be at risk of being marked as “foreign agents” themselves. Third, according to the outlet, “it’s highly likely that our new status will rob us of many vital sources and complicate our access to leading experts”.
The law mandates that every message by Meduza, whether an article, a tweet, or a YouTube video, is supplemented by a prominent notification about its status as a “foreign agent” – harming its aesthetic appeal to its large social media following but also, and more importantly, its business appeal to advertisers.
The European Union has denounced the move against Meduza. According to a statement by EU diplomatic service, “the so-called “foreign agent” law contributes to a systematic infringement of basic freedoms, and restricts civil society, independent media and the rights of political opposition in Russia.”
The labeling comes amid a wider crackdown on free press in the recent month, coinciding with the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Multiple reporters have been detained covering protests which the police raided homes of many journalists in recent days. Authorities are also cracking down on the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Navalny’s organization, that has become de-facto the most prominent investigative outlet in the country.
Meduza was founded in Latvia in 2014 by former leadership of Lenta.ru, a Russian publication. Most editorial staff left Lenta in the wake of a conflict with its owner threatening Lenta’s editorial freedom.
Meduza’s first chief editor and now-CEO Galina Timchenko was the editor-in-chief of Lenta before the exodus. Over the past years, Meduza became one of the most popular and widely-cited Russian-languge outlets.
More from The Fix: Media vs. authoritarianism: audiences are the best and only hope