At least we know that Meduza has not been singled out. A few weeks after we were branded a “foreign agent,” another independent publication joined us: VTimes, an outlet founded by exiles from another publication, Vedomosti, a respected business newspaper taken over and hollowed out by Kremlin loyalists. Together, we are the first independent media organizations to be added to the “foreign agent media” list since Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 2017. There’s little doubt that more “foreign agent” designations will follow.
It’s a disastrous development for independent media in Russia — but the situation in Belarus is much more dire. In August, for example, a Meduza reporter, Maksim Solopov, traveled to Minsk to cover the protests. There he was detained by the police, beaten, held for two days and finally deported with a travel ban. At least he wasn’t forced to record a “confession” like Sofia Sapega, Mr. Protasevich’s Russian girlfriend, who was arrested with him.
Even by Mr. Lukashenko’s brutal standards, this week was an escalation. On Monday, he signed a sweeping anti-press law that effectively criminalizes reporting from “unauthorized” — that is, all — protests and allows the authorities to shut down any news outlet without even a perfunctory court decision. For those who wish to pursue independent information, the choice is between exile and a prison cell.
In Russia, by contrast, it’s the legal cost of reporting, rather than outright suppression, that is increasingly prohibitive for independent media: Journalists who covered the protests in support of Mr. Navalny have been hounded by the police and summoned for questioning weeks later. But the country, in truth, is not too far behind its already fully dictatorial neighbor and ally — as the moves to outlaw Mr. Navalny’s national grass-roots activist network and block its hundreds of thousands of supporters from running for office show.
For all the drama of Mr. Protasevich’s arrest — plucked from the sky at a president’s demand — repression doesn’t usually happen in a snap. It drags on for weeks, months, years. Foreign media bureaus are expelled or restricted in their reporting, local outlets are muzzled, information dries up and international attention shifts elsewhere. Bit by bit, the space for independent inquiry shrinks, until it’s gone. And all that’s left is state propaganda.