IPI calls on Russian authorities to withdraw their decision to label the country’s most-read independent news website, Meduza, an “undesirable” organization.

The designation carries even more serious consequences than the status of “foreign agent”, which Meduza received in 2021. It now means that collaborating with Meduza could entail criminal liability, including up to 10 years in prison, while sharing or liking work by Meduza on social media could be considered an administrative or criminal offence.

In a decision published on Thursday, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s office issued the declaration against “Medusa Project”, the non-governmental organization which publishes Meduza. Both organizations are based in exile in Latvia since 2014. The office claims in its statement that Meduza “presents a danger to constitutional order and to the security of the Russian Federation”. The statement did not say what constituted the “danger”.

“Meduza brings independent news and information to millions of Russians every day, offering them an antidote to the Kremlin’s propaganda. The government’s decision to declare Meduza “undesirable” is a blatant and outrageous effort to intimidate Meduza, disrupt its work, and further insulate the Russian public from the truth. The accusation that Meduza presents a danger to Russia’s constitutional order could hardly be more absurd – but is in line with the Russian government’s Orwellian repression of independent journalism”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said.

“This designation should be immediately revoked. IPI stands by our colleagues at Meduza and all other Russian independent media outlets who continue to do their jobs despite the extreme levels of harassment they face.”

Meduza had already been threatened with “undesirable” status over the past year. In July, the infamous head of the Russian private military company Wagner, Yevgeni Prigozhin, demanded that authorities take this step in a letter sent to the Russian Prosecutor-General. Prigozhin made the move after Meduza correspondent Lilya Yapparova published an investigation into the deployment of Wagner mercenaries in Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking to IPI, Meduza’s executive director, Galina Timchenko, said her media outlet would continue its activities despite its new status. “We are still trying to figure out the details, but we [already] understand that sharing active links to our materials could be punishable”, she said. “The safety of readers is extremely important to us, so we will prepare and issue detailed instructions [on how to access Meduza in Russia].”

She added: “To be honest, we were ready for this, we were waiting for this from the very beginning of the war. The Russian government is fighting the press and Vladimir Putin personally has been doing this for these eight years [of the war], and even for all 20 years [he has been in power]”.

Organizations declared to be “undesirable” face incredible legal pressure in Russia, greater even than that foreseen by the country’s legislation on “foreign agents”. Collaborating with an “undesirable”  organization entails fines or even prison terms of up to 10 years according to article 284.1 of Russia’s criminal code. Engaging with publications by an “undesirable” media, such as sharing or liking its posts on social media, could potentially be seen as “participating” in such an organization, and be punished with a fine or up to four years of prison.

Russia adopted its internationally criticized law on “undesirable” organizations in 2015. Since then, several dozen groups have received the status. Nearly all of them are donor or non-governmental organizations based in the United States or the EU, such as the National Endowment for Democracy or the Open Society Foundations.

To date, only a handful of independent Russian media outlets have been labelled “undesirable”. The first, in 2021, was Proekt, an investigative project which helped uncover a number of corruption scandals involving top members of Vladimir Putin’s elite. Later, in February 2022, days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities declared as “undesirable” the legal entity behind iStories (known in Russian as “Vazhnye Istorii”), an outlet created in collaboration with the U.S.-based global investigative reporting network OCCRP (itself declared an ”undesirable” organization at the same time). In July 2022, investigative outlets Bellingcat and The Insider received the designation.