The IPI global press freedom network today denounced the latest squeeze on investigative media in Russia and called for international condemnation over the move by Russian authorities to ban the independent outlet Proekt and label several of its journalists “foreign agents”.

The move by the Prosecutor General’s office, which effectively outlaws the media outlet and leaves its journalists facing possible jail time for doing their job, comes after Proekt published damaging revelations about corruption involving top Kremlin officials and President Putin.

“This outrageous decision by Russian authorities to outlaw Proekt is a blatant act of retaliation for its courageous investigative reporting”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “It is a direct attack on media freedom, one that has sadly become all too common in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“Independent journalism which dares criticise the government is being squeezed more and more ahead of September’s parliamentary election, with the ‘foreign agent’ law wielded as the main weapon to harass and silence Kremlin critics. Investigative journalists probing widespread corruption by the Kremlin are taking the biggest battering. While regulatory, economic and legal pressure are common, this is the first time an investigative outlet has bene shut down outright. International condemnation should be swift, strong and make it clear: the world is watching.”

Among those designed “foreign agents” on July 15 were eight journalists and the editor-in-chief, Roman Badanin, according to media reports. The outlet’s U.S.-based publisher, Project Media Inc, was also labelled an “undesirable” organization, meaning it is required to close under Russian law.

The publication’s investigative journalism on alleged corruption and the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic have made it a target of pressure of the Kremlin ever since it was founded in 2018. In those three years it has published several high-profile investigations into the hidden wealth of government officials allies and business elites, including Putin himself.

In June, police searched the homes of Badanin and several other journalists hours after they announced the publication of an investigation into the hidden wealth of the family of the interior minister. Police confiscated journalistic materials and arrested Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mikhail Rubin. The outlet then published the investigation regardless.

Unrelenting pressure on independent media

The banning of Proekt is the latest in a string of attacks by authorities against what remains of Russia’s investigative and critical media. On the same day it banned Proekt, the justice ministry also designated numerous reporters for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Open Media as “foreign agents”.

In April, Latvia-based independent newspaper Meduza and PASMI, a Russia-based news medium reporting on corruption, were also declared a “foreign agent”. Russian business newspaper VTimes was forced to close in June over fears its journalists could be prosecuted after being designated a “foreign agent”.

The law requires branded outlets to put a disclaimer above every text they publish, both for articles on their websites and posts on social media, warning viewers they are about to read content from a “foreign agent”. If media do not comply, they face fines, criminal charges or even a complete publication ban.

In April, security forces raided the home of one of Russia’s leading investigative journalists and the editor-in-chief of the investigative outlet iStories, Roman Anin,. The previous month, journalists from the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta had to evacuate their office after a suspicious chemical substance was found at the entrance.

In January, dozens of journalists were detained or injured by police while covering protests in Russia in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In April, the investigative arm of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund was declared “extremist” and journalists reporting from outside the penal colony in which Navalny is serving his sentence were detained.

In October last year, the editor-in-chief of a small local news outlet died from burns suffered after setting herself on fire in front of the regional headquarters of the Interior Ministry in Nizhny Novgorod, citing persistent pressure from Russian authorities.