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Meduza, one of Russia’s leading independent news organizations, called for donations in fiat, bitcoin, ether and BNB after Russian authorities labeled it a “foreign agent” last week.

The label, basically marking Meduza as an “enemy of the state,” can hurt its ability to contact sources and report news, the team said in a statement. 

“They are trying to kill Meduza,” the team said in another editorial statement. “The Ministry of Justice deemed us a ‘foreign agent.’ As a result, we lost our advertisers. It means that our funds are running out. Right now.” 

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On April 23, the Russian Justice Ministry designated Meduza as a foreign agent, which means the journalists will have to mark every article they write as published by a foreign agent. They will also have to submit detailed financial reports every quarter. 

According to the editor-in-chief, Ivan Kolpakov, on Monday many advertisers pulled out. Because of the financial urgency, Meduza launched a fundraiser on Thursday, asking donors to send money via a bank card payment, PayPal or crypto transfers in bitcoin, ether and BNB.

Meduza joins a small number of Russian organizations that accept donations in crypto, including one led by prominent politician Alexey Navalny as well as several human rights-related groups. 

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Bitcoin for ‘enemies of the state’

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“If people are afraid to send us money from their bank accounts, and they might well be, they can send us crypto,” Kolpakov said, adding: 

“The scale of political repression in Russia [is] so large these days that people might be worried about their personal data. People who went to political rallies are getting deanonymized by facial recognition systems and harassed by the police.”

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Kolpakov added that the list of cryptocurrencies will be expanded. For now, they chose  bitcoin and ether because they are the most popular, and BNB because it has the cheapest transaction fees. The team is also thinking of issuing and selling non-fungible tokens (NFT) to raise funds, Kolpakov said.

“If it was up to me, I would take all the donations in crypto,” Kolpakov said. “We believe in crypto and blockchain, we believe it’s the future of global finance. Plus, for many years, our readers have been asking for an option to donate crypto.”

The donations have been flowing in. In the initial hours following the announcement of the fundraiser, Meduza received dozens of small donations, over 0.29 BTC and 3 ETH in total (or more than $23,800). 

Meduza will contest the “foreign agent” status in court but the chances of winning are slim, Kolpakov said. So for now, the team is trying to buy some time and decide what to do next. 

“Among other things, we’re going to see if we can live off donations,” he added.

The black mark

Meduza’s troubles are part of a larger trend of recent police actions against journalists in Russia. On April 9, the police raided the apartment of a prominent investigative journalist Roman Anin. On April 17, Anin’s colleague, Ekaterina Arenina, was detained after interviewing people for her story about torture in Russian prisons. 

Over the past weekend, police also detained several journalists who reported on protest rallies against the imprisonment of the politician Alexey Navalny, who was demanding medical help while in prison. Student magazine editors were placed under house arrest last year.

In December, several individual journalists were branded as foreign agents by the state. Last July, former prominent defense reporter Ivan Safronov went to jail on treason charges. 

Meduza is an online news outlet that provides news in Russian and English. It was founded by the core team of another Russian media outlet, Lenta.ru, in 2014, after editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko was fired by the owner for Lenta’s coverage of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. 

Many journalists left the publication in protest. When Timchenko and two other editors founded Meduza, some of those journalists joined the startup. The team has been operating from an office in Riga, Latvia, which is a short flight from Moscow. Core reporters are still based in Russia. 

Meduza has joined the list of designated foreign media agents that includes Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as well as several journalists.

Meduza must now publish a notice of foreign agent status in a larger font than the main text of its articles. This week, Meduza started adding such notices at the top of every article and tweet, typing it in all capital letters on Twitter. 

The law on foreign agents was passed in 2012, defining a foreign agent as an organization that is involved in political activities and receiving funding from abroad. However, there was no precise definition of political activity. Currently, 75 nonprofits in Russia, including human rights, election monitoring and educational groups, have this status.

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In December, the law was amended so that individuals can also be designated foreign agents. Immediately after that, five journalists and civil rights activists were deemed foreign agents. 

“For years, Russian authorities have used the ‘foreign agents’ law to suppress independent groups,” Human Right Watch wrote in 2020. 

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