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Roman Anin, one of Russia’s most prominent investigative journalists, working in his office in Moscow, Russia.

Maria Turchenkova/Handout

At first, Roman Anin had no idea why agents from Russia’s FSB security service were outside his apartment – though he was far from surprised by their arrival.

As one of Russia’s most prominent investigative journalists, and one of the few willing to dig deep into the financial dealings of those in and around the Kremlin, the 34-year-old knew that legal trouble was always possibly just one story away. Staff at the iStories website he founded last year have held seminars with lawyers – training for the moment that the FSB arrives.

But when the team of agents arrived at Mr. Anin’s door on April 9 and searched for seven hours – explaining nothing about their presence as they ransacked his apartment as well as the offices of iStories (the “i” stands for “important”) – it marked the beginning of an escalated crackdown on independent media and freedom of speech in Russia, a country that already had little of both.

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In addition to Mr. Anin and iStories, the pressure campaign has seen Meduza, one of the best-read Russian-language news websites, declared a “foreign agent,” and four editors at a student magazine hit with criminal charges.

The media crackdown was made alongside an official move to label the country’s main opposition movement – the Anti-Corruption Foundation led by the jailed Alexey Navalny – as an “extremist group” after it organized a series of mass protests against the authoritarian rule of President Vladimir Putin. The Anti-Corruption Foundation disbanded itself last week rather than let its staff face potential extremism charges, which can carry hefty prison sentences.

Reporters who covered the most recent protests in support of Mr. Navalny – who survived a poisoning attempt last summer, only to be arrested when he returned to Russia for violating his parole while receiving life-saving medical treatment in Germany – have been visited at home by police officers. They were asked to provide proof they attended the April 21 rally as journalists and not as opposition activists.

A journalist watches a live stream of a court hearings with the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on a screen as Russian soldiers guard in front of the court in Moscow, Russia.

Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press

The campaign seems designed to intimidate those who work in the already limited space provided to independent Russian media.

In Mr. Anin’s case, it took him until the day after the raid at his apartment to deduce that it was a five-year-old investigation into one of the world’s most luxurious yachts that was the cause of his legal troubles.

Mr. Anin has since been interrogated as a “witness” in a privacy invasion case. At issue is his 2016 report for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which revealed that a multimillion-dollar yacht – equipped with its own gym, swimming pool and helicopter pad – belonged to the wife of Igor Sechin, the head of the state-owned Rosneft oil company, and a close ally of Mr. Putin. Mr. Anin believes he could eventually be charged with a felony in the case, which could mean a sentence of up to four years in prison.

“It’s obvious that Russian authorities have decided to crack down on media and shut down all the critical voices,” Mr. Anin said in an interview.

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A man wearing a T-shirt with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves a district court in Moscow on April 14 during a hearing on pretrial measures against journalists of the student news site DOXA.

DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Five days after the raid at Mr. Anin’s apartment, police arrested four editors of a student magazine, DOXA, and charged them with inciting minors to take part in “hazardous activities.” The charges, which stem from DOXA’s coverage of the January protests in Moscow and other cities following Mr. Navalny’s arrest, could result in three-year prison sentences for the young journalists.

The four have been barred from leaving their homes or using the internet until they face trial on June 14.

Natalia Zviagina, director of the Moscow office of Amnesty International, called the raid on DOXA a “new low” for press freedom in a country that was already a dangerous place to be a journalist. (The Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 28 reporters have been killed since Mr. Putin first came to power in 2000.) “Silencing those brave enough to speak up – including students – shuts down the future of press freedom in Russia,” Ms. Zviagina said in a statement.

Read an open letter from Russian journalists about the media crackdown

On April 23, the Justice Ministry turned its sights on Meduza and declared that the Latvia-based organization, which receives millions of unique visitors to its website every day, was a “foreign agent.”

It’s a designation that has previously been used to curb the activities of human-rights organizations and other civil society groups, and one that dramatically complicates the job of working for Meduza. The news portal was founded in 2014 by Russian journalists who moved to neighbouring Latvia to escape their country’s declining freedom of speech.

Editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov said the foreign agent label was “toxic” to Meduza’s Russia-based reporting staff since it could also be applied to individual journalists. That would force them to provide statements about their earning and spending to the Justice Ministry, opening them up to possible prosecution. “It’s the easiest way to intimidate any reporter in Russia. Any person who collaborates with Meduza is taking a risk.”

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Every article on the Russian-language version of Meduza’s website now comes with a bold-type notice atop the text, warning readers that the material was produced by “mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent.” The disclaimer is followed by three face-palm emojis that the editors added themselves.

Mr. Kolpakov said the designation had shattered Meduza’s business model by scaring away the advertisers that the website relied on, forcing the organization last week to launch its first crowdfunding effort. Mr. Kolpakov said he wasn’t optimistic that reader donations could replace the fast-disappearing advertising revenue. “I don’t know how long we can continue. Every day we are losing our [advertising] clients.”

Mr. Putin gives a media interview at a March 18 concert in Moscow marking the seventh anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS

The crackdown recalls Mr. Putin’s first term as President, in the early 2000s, when the Kremlin moved one-by-one to wrest control of the country’s main television stations from the hands of the country’s powerful oligarchs. Being able to dictate the television news agenda has helped keep Mr. Putin’s personal approval ratings high for the past two decades, even as Russia has gone through wars, economic crises and now a poorly handled pandemic under his leadership.

The next target was print media, and over the past decade Russian newspapers have been methodically bought up by Kremlin-friendly business. Now, the Kremlin appears to have turned its attention to the internet, which is where the bulk of Mr. Navalny’s young followers get their information.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was dismissive last week when asked about Meduza’s fate during a press conference. “The modern media market is set up in such a way that the disappearance of any media outlet won’t be felt strongly. Let’s be honest.” He also suggested that DOXA had brought trouble upon itself by straying away from student issues and into politics.

Mr. Kolpakov said the crackdown reflected the growing strength of the “security wing” of Mr. Putin’s regime, as well as a belief inside the Kremlin that Russia’s woes – the stagnant economy and the growing political unrest – were all part of a foreign plot. “The way they explain it to themselves is that foreign states are trying to interfere with the political situation in Russia.”

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Mr. Anin said twin campaigns against Mr. Navalny’s supporters and independent media revealed how paranoid the Kremlin had become. “Any critical voice is a threat to them now.”

The Globe and Mail's Nathan VanderKlippe and The Narwhal’s Sarah Cox share the 2021 Canada’s Press Freedom prize. Their articles highlight China’s use of forced labour camps, and B.C. government secrecy over the troubled Site C dam. May 3 is World Press Freedom Day.

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