The Russian government took another consolidation-of-power step recently. Deciding to exercise a 2012 law written specifically to give it leverage against independent press outlets, a Moscow court has hit the country's last remaining opposition magazine with a massive fine.
The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned an exorbitant fine imposed on the independent news outlet The New Times. A Moscow court on October 26 ordered the outlet to pay 22.3 million rubles (US$338,000) for failing to provide financial information under Russia's "foreign agents" law and ordered the outlet's editor-in-chief Yevgenia Albats to pay an additional fine of 30,000 rubles, TV Dozhd reported.
Albats suspects this fine is the result of an October 22nd interview with opposition politician and vocal Putin critic Aleksei Nalvany. The hefty fine should result in the closure of The New Times, which would be exactly what the Russian government wants.
The law used to effectively push the magazine into bankruptcy went live in 2012. It requires all non-government operations that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents." This law was upgraded last year in response to a new US policy requiring similar "foreign agent" registration for Russian state-run news outlets. This newer twist allows for direct targeting of press outlets. But, even without this addition, the Russian government still could have crippled The New Times. As Agence France-Presse reports, part of The New Times' funding involves donations collected by a registered charity.
With this move, Russian citizens will now be limited to state-run publications. The internet will still provide opportunities for Russians to read news not controlled by the state, but those too will eventually dry up as the Russian government continues to assert its control of this medium as well. The internet was the last refuge of The New Times, which had to cease publication of its print edition due to a lack of funding.
The court decision itself is suspect. Rather than pretend the fine (supposedly triggered by single failure to update registration paperwork three months ago) could be discussed or disputed, the court made its decision without input from the defendants. New Times' staff and lawyers were not present and evidence showing the outlet had made a good faith effort to rectify its error was not presented.
The court case, which began back in April, suddenly accelerated towards a hefty fine following the publication's interview with a prominent Putin critic. There are additional details contained in The New Times' post on the subject -- including its justifiably dour announcement that it will be appealing this decision -- harbors no expectations any Russian court will reverse this decision.
If it all plays out the way everyone involved believes it will, the Russian government will have secured a "100% Complete" trophy for press suppression. If it can just keep the internet in line, it will be able to return the country to its former Cold War glory.
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