It is safe to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a fan of independent media. In the run-up to elections last month, Putin declared almost every independent media organization operating inside the country a “foreign agent” to stifle dissent and criticism. The intent seems to be to destroy independent media in Russia.
Now, this campaign has been extended to coverage of space activities in Russia.
The country already prohibits reporting on space activities containing classified information, but a new law extends to coverage of a variety of other space news. Essentially, any person in Russia who now reports on anything that might be even tangentially related to Russia’s military activities or space activities will be labeled as a foreign agent.
News organizations and individuals will be required to put a disclaimer on every single article, social media post, or tweet reading, “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.”
While there is technically a carve-out for science or fully civilian missions, in Russia the civil and military programs are so closely linked that they are almost impossible to disentangle.
The new law can be found here. It includes a list of 60 items about military and non-military activities to which the new law applies and for which reporters must identify themselves as “foreign agents.” Here are a few examples, translated for Ars by Rob Mitchell:
- Information on the procedure, timing and amount of funding for programs for restructuring organizations of the State Corporation for Space Activities “Roskosmos,” the status of settlements with Russian organizations, the results of financial and economic activities for a quarter (year).
- Information on equity financing by the State Corporation for Space Activities “Roskosmos,” the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, organizations (including foreign ones) of research and development work in the field of space activities.
- Generalized information on conversion, production capacity, plans and results of restructuring of organizations of the State Corporation for Space Activities “Roskosmos.”
- Information about new technologies, materials, components that give new properties to the products of the State Corporation for Space Activities “Roskosmos.”
This law has had an immediate chilling effect on space coverage inside the country. A prominent Russian space blogger, Katya Pavlushchenko, immediately announced on Twitter that she was going to have to suspend her coverage of Russian space activities due to the new law.
“The wording in the order is so streamlined that, if desired, literally anyone can be accused of violating it,” she told Ars.
For most of the bloggers and other people who write about space in Russia, Pavlushchenko said, it is only a relatively small part of their science or educational coverage. “I’ve heard today from several authors of popular science and educational blogs that they will pay more attention to the foreign space activities,” she said. “Will it affect the coverage of Roscosmos? For sure it will. These authors weren’t negative about Roscosmos, they did a lot of work to highlight its activities for ordinary people.”
The biggest effect of the law, she believes, will be to reduce coverage of Russia’s space activities for regular Russians. Most likely they will see state media and not much else.
This ruling won’t affect coverage by organizations outside of Russia, including Ars Technica, which have reported on the Russian space corporation’s difficulties in recent years. The reality is that the Russian space corporation is run by a political figure and friend of Putin’s, Dmitry Rogozin, who appears to be using it to enrich himself.
Roscosmos pays its employees very poorly, and as a result overall quality appears to be decreasing, with several recent launch and spacecraft failures (with horrific attempts at deflection). Overall, a once great space nation has seen its status fall from an undisputed leader to an also-ran behind the United States, China, and even some US companies.
Perhaps it is not difficult, after all, to understand why Putin and Rogozin would not welcome domestic coverage.