Why does Russia prohibit journalists from covering its space program?

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, does not like the independent press and apparently intends to do away with it in its entirety.

Since 2012, Russia has had the “foreign agent” law, a label that has been received by organizations and individuals that the Russian Government generally considers to be opponents.

In fact, in the run-up to the September legislative elections, Putin declared almost all independent media organizations operating in the country as “foreign agents”, with the intention of suppressing dissent and criticism.

The law recently expanded press restrictions by prohibiting any independent coverage of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the national space industry in general, as well as the country’s military activities. Consequently, any media or writer that continues to report on the space industry will be declared a “foreign agent”; only state media can cover that source.

With the application of this law, Russian media, journalists and space enthusiasts have to add a disclaimer in every article or post they make on social media. It should read: “This report (material) has been created or distributed by foreign media channels performing the functions of a foreign agent or a Russian legal entity performing the functions of a foreign agent.”

What information cannot “foreign agents” cover?

The law includes a list of 60 items on military and non-military activities to which the new measure applies. These are some examples (translated by Ars Technica):

  • Information on the procedure, timing and amount of funding for restructuring programs of organizations in charge of the State Corporation for Space Activities “Roscosmos”, the status of settlements with Russian organizations and the results of economic and financial activities during a quarter (year).
  • Information on the capital financing of Roscosmos, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, organizations (including foreign ones) of research and development in the field of space activities.
  • Generalized information on conversion, production capacity, plans and results of restructuring of Roscosmos organizations.
  • Information on new technologies, materials, components that give new properties to Roscosmos products.

What effects will this law have?

The law affects journalists, bloggers and other members of the press who cover the space program within the country.

One of them is Russian space blogger Katya Pavlushchenko, who announced in Twitter that you would have to suspend your coverage due to this regulation. He also mentioned to Ars Technica that the “wording of the law is so outlined” that anyone can be charged with breaking it.

“Today I have heard from various authors of educational and popular science blogs that they will pay more attention to foreign space activities. Will it affect the coverage of Roscosmos? It sure will. These authors were not negative about Roscosmos, they worked hard to highlight their activities for ordinary people, ”commented the blogger.

For her, the greatest effect of the law regarding the coverage of Russian space activities will be reflected in civilians, who will only be informed by what the state media publishes.

What is the reason for the new measure?

According to Ars Technica, the law appears intended to give Roscosmos a better image and divert attention from the country’s declining state as a leader on space exploration issues.

Roscosmos is led by a political figure and friend of Putin, Dmitry Rogozin, who would use the Russian space corporation to enrich himself. That would be a possible reason why independent national coverage is not well received, since it prefers to have control of the information that is disseminated.

According to the outlet, Roscosmos does not pay its employees well, so the general quality of Russian space projects has declined, which would be reflected, for example, in the failures in spacecraft. In this way, Russia no longer has the status of leader as before, for which it has historically fought against the United States.

“Foreign agent”

The term “foreign agent” is associated with spying during the Cold War, but was resurrected in a law that Putin enacted in 2012. Initially, it was created to control foreign-funded organizations.

In 2017, the law was extended to include foreign-funded media outlets in Russia, and in 2019 it was extended to anyone (Russian or not) who distributed international media materials labeled as “foreign agent” (such as on social media ) and received external financing.

Since 2020, the law also includes citizens who are politically active (from leaflet distribution to discussions on social media). In addition, foreign financing can even be a transfer of money from a relative from another country.

Once labeled as foreign agents, individuals or organizations are required to mark all their posts with an explicit statement that they fall into that category, in addition to detailing their funding sources.

The law has been criticized both in Russia and internationally for being a violation of human rights and for being designed to target opposition groups.

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