Media Politics 27 September 2021

Russia’s ‘top informer’ sets his sights on The Bell

The state campaign against independent media in Russia shows no sign of relenting. Pro-Kremlin activist Alexander Ionov — who successfully suggested outlet Meduza be made a ‘foreign agent’ earlier this year — requested Wednesday that The Bell be given the same designation.

  • Ionov, who describes himself as a human rights activist, told state-owned news agency TASS he had requested the Prosecutor General check The Bell’s finances and label it a ‘foreign agent’. Ionov said The Bell’s management company was Delaware-based Polestar Digital Ventures and that one of our ‘sponsors’ was Investigative Studios, which, he claimed, is “financed by the U.S. authorities”.
  • Of course, Ionov’s claims are untrue. The Bell issued a full statement in Russian. Our management company is registered in Russia and does not receive foreign funding. Investigative Studios is a private business that was involved in the production of two films by Oscar-winning U.S. documentary maker Alex Gibney for release on HBO and Amazon. Polestar Digital Ventures assisted Investigative Studios in arranging interviews with Russian officials and experts for these films.

Who is Alexander Ionov?

Ionov is one of a new breed of pro-government activists used to advance complaints — as if ‘from the public’ — against independent media outlets.

  • Ionov’s denunciation of Meduza in April led to the Ministry of Justice labelling Meduza — Russia’s most popular independent media organization — a ‘foreign agent’. Other Ionov complaints have resulted in investigative media outlet iStories and several of its journalists being branded foreign agents and the U.S. Bard College being named an ‘undesirable organization’ (essentially outlawing it in Russia).
  • Before he became Russia’s ‘informer-in-chief’, Ionov was best known as the founder of the Anti-Globalist Movement of Russia. The organization’s role was to support “countries and peoples who oppose the dictates of a uni-polar world and to seek to propose an alternative agenda,” according to his website. Honorary members allegedly include Syrian President Bashar Assad, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
  • Ionov told The Bell he went to Syria in 2015 to coordinate “almost 60 Russian companies” trying to evade U.S. sanctions. Since then, he has helped raise funds to free alleged Russian agent Maria Butina and dealt with cases involving Russian hackers arrested abroad on suspicion of cyber-crimes and interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to Meduza. Later, Ionov became a member of the Public Monitoring Commission that checks human rights violations in prison.
  • After his complaint against Meduza resulted in a ‘foreign agent’ designation, Ionov announced he was forming a new organization: the Public Committee for the Detection of Foreign Interference. Its role is to ‘uncover’ foreign agents.
  • In a Meduza investigation last month, several sources claimed Ionov worked with Kremlin officials. Both Ionov and another ‘informer’, Vitaly Borodin (a complaint from whom led to investigative media outlet Proekt being branded an ‘undesirable organization’) often reference articles by state-owned television channel RT in their denunciations. Ionov, Borodin and other activists are ‘ambassadors’ for an official campaign against foreign funding in the media, according to Meduza, while all decisions about ‘foreign agents’ are actually made in advance by top officials.

Why the world should care: The government’s campaign against independent media is no longer a one-sided battle: Federation Council speaker Valentina Matvienko said Thursday that the ‘foreign agent’ law will not be repealed, but the government might “clarify it”. Her remarks came after over 200 media outlets, NGOs, educational organizations and charities launched an anti-’foreign agent’ petition that has already been signed by over 135,000 people.