MOSCOW (AP) — Several dozen Russians gathered in the center of Moscow on Saturday to protest Russian authorities’ recent crackdown on independent media.
The small rally was organized by several opposition candidates in Russia’s Sept. 19 parliamentary election and officially billed as a meeting between candidates and voters in order to avoid detentions and accusations of staging an unauthorized rally.
In their speeches, the candidates condemned the recent designation of several independent media outlets, including Russia’s top independent TV channel Dozhd and popular news site Meduza, as “foreign agents.” The label carries strong pejorative connotations that can discredit the recipient and implies additional government scrutiny.
“Our authorities want to completely wipe out the media sphere. The labeling now of Dozhd, Meduza and other media as ‘foreign agents’ are steps toward establishing a dictatorship that was described by Orwell, with the main slogan being: ‘Ignorance is power,’” said activist Nikolai Kavkazsky, who is running for parliament on the ticket of the liberal Yabloko party.
Independent media, journalists, opposition supporters and human rights activists in Russia have faced increased pressure ahead of the Sept. 19 vote, which is widely seen as an important part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cement his rule before the next presidential election in 2024.
The 68-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.
In recent months, the government has designated a number of independent media outlets and journalists as “foreign agents” and raided the homes of several prominent reporters. The publisher of one outlet that released investigative reports exposing alleged corruption and abuses by top Russian officials and tycoons close to Putin was outlawed as an “undesirable” organization.
Two other news outlets shut down after authorities accused them of links to “undesirable” organizations.
The Kremlin has rejected accusations that it is stifling free press and insisted that the “foreign agent” designation doesn’t bar outlets from operating.
The wave of repressions against independent outlets has prompted protests in Moscow. Two weeks ago, 12 journalists were briefly detained after picketing Russia’s Federal Security Service in protest of the “foreign agents” law.
No detentions were reported at the rally on Saturday.