Meduza, the largest Russian independent news site, has been declared an “undesirable organisation” in one of the most stringent acts of censorship since President Vladimir Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February.
Russia’s prosecutor-general said Meduza’s parent company, which is registered in Latvia, “threatens the foundations of constitutional order and the security of the Russian Federation”, according to a statement on Thursday, without giving further details.
The decision means Meduza is banned from operating in Russia, while anyone who “co-operates” or even posts a hyperlink to its online content could face a prison sentence of up to six years.
The ban on Meduza is the latest move by the Kremlin to control discourse over the Ukraine war. Limits on the public’s access to information on the conflict have essentially outlawed Russia’s independent media.
The decision is likely to make it significantly more difficult for its reporters, most of whom are based in Latvia, to speak to people in Russia, reducing the website’s reach. Its current readership of about 15mn has largely remained in Russia despite the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people who oppose the war or wanted to avoid the draft.
“We’d like to say that we’re not scared and we couldn’t care less about this new status — but that’s not true,” Meduza said in a statement. “We are scared for our readers. We are scared for the people who worked with Meduza for many years. We are scared for our loved ones and our friends.”
Meduza added: “Nonetheless, we believe in what we do. We believe in freedom of speech. We believe in a democratic Russia. The bigger the pressure, the harder we will stand up to it.”
After the invasion of Ukraine 11 months ago, regulators banned calling the Russian offensive a “war” or an “invasion”, then moved to shut down outlets including TV Rain, Russia’s only independent news channel, and Echo of Moscow, a popular liberal radio station, as well as blocking Meduza’s website.
Lawmakers quickly passed a bill outlawing “discrediting the armed forces”, which introduced prison sentences of up to 15 years for publishing potentially anything that contradicts the Kremlin’s official line.
At least 133 people have faced criminal prosecution under the new law, according to Russian-based independent rights monitor Ovd-Info.
Hundreds of journalists have fled Russia to avoid being prosecuted for the war and continued to report from afar in countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia.
Ivan Kolpakov, Meduza’s editor, said its staff all left Russia in March, but the site had maintained a large network of freelancers in the country to continue reporting on the war — an activity that now carries a potential prison term.
But the site will look to find ways of reaching readers within Russia, where it remains broadly accessible through virtual private networks, on social media app Telegram, YouTube and even through PDF files that Meduza encourages readers to print out for technophobic friends or relatives.
“Think about how they are going mad over their own powerlessness: they have been trying to destroy Russian journalism for so many years and it’s not working,” Ilya Krasilshchik, Meduza’s former publisher, said in a tweet.
“Meduza absolutely does threaten this slapdash constitution and the security of the Russia that attacked Ukraine. I hope they really do feel the threat,” he added.