Media Politics 17 May 2021

Independent media pressured as VTimes made ‘foreign agent’

State pressure on independent media continues to increase. Just three weeks after media outlet Meduza was branded a ‘foreign agent’, business title VTimes received the same designation. VTimes was set up last year by journalists who left top business newspaper Vedomosti when it was bought out by shareholders linked to state-owned oil giant Rosneft. Unlike Meduza, VTimes is a traditional business outlet that rarely reports on politics or human rights issues — and always takes a decidedly neutral line.

  • Business newspaper Vedomosti — the inspiration for VTimes — was partly owned by Western media giants The Financial Times and Dow Jones and acted as a flagbearer for independent journalism in Russia for more than two decades. When it was bought out by almost-unknown publisher Ivan Yeremin in 2020, a blockbuster media investigation (that included The Bell reporters) established Rosneft was actually calling the shots at the newspaper.
  • After the change of owners and the first cases of censorship, almost all of Vedomosti’s editorial team resigned and set up VTimes. Within just six months it established itself as a top-flight website for business news. You can read a summary of its best stories from their first months.
  • VTimes has been clear from the start that they are financed by reader donations. And it’s not hard to guess why they have been successful in raising money this way: the old Vedomosti was essential reading for anyone involved in the Russian business world. As yet, there is no information from VTimes about whether they have other sources of funding. Even RT, the state-backed English-language TV channel that regularly broadcasts revelations about foreign funding for independent media, has yet to make any such claims against VTimes.
  • Officially, the Ministry of Justice has not included VTimes on the list of foreign agents, but, instead, designated Dutch fund Stichting 2 Oktober because it “is the administrator of the VTimes.io domain name”. Stichting 2 Oktober’s director is Dutch media manager Derk Sauer, former owner of the Russian publishing house Independent Media and founder of Vedomosti. His deputy at the fund is Alexander Gubsky, the former deputy editor-in-chief of Vedomosti and a co-founder of VTimes. Gubsky has said that Stichting 2 Oktober helped VTimes register the domain; any other links between the fund and the outlet are unknown.
  • Outlets given the Soviet-era label ‘foreign agent’ are obliged to preface every article and social media post with a paragraph of text detailing their status. It is highly likely that affected publications will see a sharp fall in advertising revenue. When Meduza was branded a foreign agent at the end of April it was reported that advertisers immediately began getting cold feet. The status also makes the work of reporters much harder: some sources are already shying away from speaking to Meduza journalists. Freelance journalists might also be put off writing for a publication with such a controversial reputation.

Why the world should care

Many explained the decision to put Meduza on the list of foreign agents as a one-off intimidation tactic. However, the addition of VTimes to the list suggests this is actually a deliberate decision to ratchet up pressure on independent media as a whole — and that other outlets will likely face a similar fate. If this happens, it means there will be just two options for funding: Western grants and crowdfunding. It’s unlikely that reader contributions will be enough to save all the affected outlets.