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The Kremlin has a new toolkit for shutting down independent news media

Worldwide, authoritarians are finding less overt ways to shut down independent news — and independent outlets are finding new ways to stay alive

As September’s parliamentary elections approach, Russia has made it increasingly difficult for independent media — outlets that are neither owned nor directly controlled by the Kremlin — to continue operating. And it’s doing so whether or not the outlets criticize the Kremlin.

VTimes, an online Russian news site, shut down on June 12, Russia’s Independence Day, a month after the Kremlin designated its domain administrator a “foreign agent” — which exposed VTimes editors and journalists to criminal prosecution and possible imprisonment.

The VTimes story reveals the many tactics Russia deploys to silence independent media. Our research shows that, at least in the short run, this tactic may reduce media coverage critical of the government. But our research also investigates ways independent media have boosted their resilience against attacks, both in Russia and elsewhere.

Russian independent media in the Kremlin’s crosshairs

VTimes joins a long list of independent outlets that the Russian government has targeted. In fact, VTimes itself was launched in 2020 by journalists who left one of Russia’s top business newspapers, Vedomosti, after changes in its ownership and an editorial reshuffle, reportedly under Kremlin pressure.

In the VTimes case, Russia relied on its “foreign agent” law to pressure the outlet’s editors to shut down. The law was first adopted in 2012; since then, it’s regularly been modified, including a 2017 expansion that brought media organizations under its purview. Russia’s “foreign agent” law requires individuals or organizations receiving foreign funding to declare their agent status in all their activities and submit to audits. For news media so designated, this would mean declaring their “foreign agent” status in every publication, including all social media posts.

The VTimes closure comes not long after the Kremlin also added Meduza, a Riga-based online newspaper and news aggregator, to the same register — although Meduza managed to survive. The register now lists 20 entities, including such Cold War veterans as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe alongside newcomers like VTimes. Even outlets not on the register face political pressure. For example, the online news aggregator NEWSru had not been designated a foreign agent, but also announced its closure on May 31, citing commercial and political reasons.

Why do independent media close after such legal and regulatory attacks? For several reasons. First, the attacks can reduce the size of an outlet’s audience and dampen its credibility among the wider public. Advertisers who fear being perceived as hostile to the government may withdraw support. Attacks can also hinder access to government sources and figures. In this case, fearing that the “foreign agent” label would deprive VTimes of both advertisers and access to sources, its editors opted to close.

Russians supported Putin’s moves in Crimea in 2014. Things are different in 2021.

Attacks on independent media are diversifying

Illiberal regimes can force independent outlets to close. However, the costs of doing so are high, and can spark protest at home and criticism abroad. So, rather than directly shutting down independent media — in Russia and around the world — government attacks on independent media are diversifying in approach.

Contemporary authoritarians often apply legal, regulatory and financial pressure on their free press. Repression strategies can include manipulating licensing regimes, launching tax investigations, pursuing financially draining lawsuits, and abusing regulatory practices. In Belarus, Hungary and Serbia, for instance, governments have limited media outlets’ access to distribution networks.

These changes in how governments attack independent media echo more general changes how illiberal governments approach repression. With the costs of overt coercion rising, 21st century authoritarians often opt for more indirect forms of control. In Russia and elsewhere, contemporary repression often comes through legislation. Indirect media repression is less likely to receive the visibility, attention or international outcry that accompanies forced media shutdowns. And so now autocracies and fragile democracies alike use this approach to achieve the same ends.

Independent revenue matters

When VTimes announced its intention to close, its editors opined that readers were not donating enough to fund high-quality journalism. Yet when government pressure undermines other independent outlets’ ability to secure advertising revenue, they’ve turned to subscribers for support.

For example, since being listed on the register of foreign agents this spring, Russia’s well-known independent investigative site Meduza endured a sharp decline in advertising revenue. To compensate, it launched a crowdfunding campaign similar to the one that helped save Russia’s leading independent broadcaster TVRain when it ran afoul of the Kremlin in 2014.

Russia’s independent outlets increasingly rely on subscriber revenue, much as is happening among independent outlets elsewhere. Consider Malaysiakini, a popular independent Malaysian news site launched during the 1990s, which the Malaysian government often targets with such tactics as investigations and prosecutions: the news site has responded by relying largely on subscriptions since 2002. Malaysiakini’s CEO explained that it had struggled to secure advertising revenue due to political pressures — and so had to “either go subscription, or basically close down.”

Similarly, Mada Masr, an independent digital news site repeatedly harassed by the Egyptian government, turned in 2017 to its readers. SunStar in the Philippines and Hiber (7iber) in Jordan also exemplify how subscription revenue can help independent outlets maintain an independent voice despite mounting government pressure.

The World Association of News Publishers recently issued a report emphasizing that keeping independent new sites alive in repressive countries may require diversifying revenue models and seeking income that won’t dry up under political pressure.

While advertising revenue have historically helped independent media thrive, subscriptions and reader support can help continue their critical mission — providing unbiased reporting on events at home and abroad.

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Tom Paskhalis (@tpaskhalis) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University.

Bryn Rosenfeld (@brynrosenfeld) is an assistant professor of government at Cornell University and author of “The Autocratic Middle Class: How State Dependency Reduces the Demand for Democracy” (Princeton, 2020).

Katerina Tertytchnaya (@KTertytchnaya) is assistant professor of comparative politics at University College London.