New Russian Law Threatens Space Journalists With Foreign Agent Designation

New Russian Law Threatens Space Journalists With Foreign Agent Designation
Photo: ALEXEY DRUZHININ, Getty Images

The Russian government is moving to clamp down on reporting about its state space corporation Roscosmos or its space program in general, Ars Technica first reported on Wednesday, by forcing any journalists who touch a laundry list of topics to declare themselves as “foreign agents.”

In September, Russian authorities acting on the orders of President Vladimir Putin began amping up their efforts of declaring independent media outlets which they claim receive any sort of funding from abroad as so called “foreign agents,” citing a 2012 law originally designed to target nonprofits and NGOs. Groups or individuals slapped with such a designation are officially considered to be foreign actors seeking to influence Russian politics at the behest of some external power. “Foreign agents” face various restrictions including mandatory disclosures in published materials and submitting quarterly financial reports to the Justice Ministry, with violations punishable by fines or prison time. The Guardian reported there is no known way to be removed from the list.

According to Ars Technica, a law in Russia published at the start of October by the Federal Security Service (FSB) extends the forced foreign agent disclosures to pretty much anyone who covers the nation’s military activities or space programs. The Guardian reported the law specifies 60 topics subject to the mandate, which applies any time information in those categories might be obtained by foreign governments or organisations. This could refer to any type of print or internet publishing.

Ars Technica was able to have some examples translated specifically applying to space.

The space-specific categories include information on the “procedure, timing and amount of funding for programs for restructuring organisations” of Roscosmos, “the status of settlements with Russian organisations” and “the results of financial and economic activities for a quarter (year).” The list goes on to include information on equity financing by Roscosmos, the Ministry of Defence, and organisations in the “field of space activities”; information on the “conversion, production capacity, plans and results of restructuring of organisations” of Roscosmos; and information on “new technologies, materials, components that give new properties to the products” of Roscosmos.

There are exemptions for coverage of entirely scientific or civil missions to space, but as Ars Technica noted, it is “almost impossible” to demarcate where the line would be crossed, as the Russian military has a hand in virtually the entire field.

In short, the law could be applied to almost anything related to the finances or management of Roscosmos, as well as any technology it is working on or the operational details of space missions. One Russian blogger, Katya Pavlushchenko, immediately announced she would cease covering space activities because attempting to discern what topics would fall under the law would be tantamount to walking through a minefield.

The disclaimer runs as follows: “This Report (Material) has been created or distributed by Foreign Mass Media Channels executing the functions of a Foreign Agent, and/or a Russian legal entity executing the functions of a Foreign Agent.” Of course, it should be obvious to anyone with even a little knowledge of Putin’s and his United Russia Party’s crackdown on dissent in recent years that this isn’t intended to shield Russian citizens from foreign disinformation but to warn off anyone from publishing embarrassing information.

According to the Guardian, other topics covered by the new law include military procurements; information on military morale, troop movements, or service history; investigations into allegations of abuse by security forces or the military; and many elements of defence policy and weapons development.

Russia’s military and space programs have seen major scandals in recent years and this kind of law could come in handy to suppress any future embarrassment. For example, Dmitry Rogozin, the notoriously combative head of Roscosmos, and his agency have been mired in scandal in recent years. The space program has faced claims of widespread fraud and corruption, such as graft during the construction of the Vostochny cosmodrome, which Russian authorities have estimated resulted in the loss of 11 billion rubles out of 91 billion allocated to the project. Rogozin lives suspiciously large even for a government official with a salary of roughly $633,926, Ars Technica noted, while some Roscosmos facilities can’t afford their trash bills. Several of the space corporation’s projects have suffered major technical problems in the past few years, including a space station module that erroneously fired its thrusters and a Soyuz rocket booster failure that triggered an emergency crew return to Earth.