VTimes, an independent financial news outlet, announced it will be stopping its work less than a month after the Russian Justice Ministry labelled it a “foreign media agent.” The company says the label makes its business model unsustainable.
The “foreign agent” designation — a Soviet-era label meant to imply ties to foreign espionage — requires outlets to preface all their articles and social media posts with a capitalized paragraph of text describing their work as “fulfilling the function of a foreign agent”. Videos must begin with a 15-second warning with the same text. Failure to comply can be punished with fines (€556), criminal charges, or a complete publication ban in Russia.
The Justice Ministry pointed to “Stichting 2 Oktober”, a Dutch nonprofit that supports independent journalism in Russia and CIS countries, which helped VTimes register its domain, in its explanation for the designation.
VTimes says the majority of its partners and advertisers, unwilling to be associated with so-called “foreign agents,” pulled out of cooperation agreements with the company. Donations from readers have not been enough to sustain the outlet.
In its statement, VTimes also cited the risk of criminal prosecution of its employees.
“The authorities have no need for professional, non-government-controlled media,” the statement said.
VTimes will stop publishing on June 12, Russia’s Independence Day.
In July 2020 a group of Vedomosti journalists quit the publication after accusing the newly appointed editor of introducing pro-Kremlin censorship and created VTimes. In addition to its original pieces, the outlet has a contract with the Financial Times to republish its articles in Russian.
The designation comes amid a crackdown on independent media outlets, many of which have also had to adapt to the “foreign agent” label.
Meduza, a Russian-language news organisation based in Latvia, was designated a foreign agent in April and has turned to readers for donations in a bid to stay afloat.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was added to the list in 2017. It has appealed to the Russian courts and filed a petition with the European Court of Human Rights. The outlet, which is funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress, has argued that the law and the millions of dollars of fines it has been issued so far, violate the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Twenty media outlets are now designated as foreign agents by Russia’s justice ministry.