Journalists who cover Russia’s space program say they may adopt a more cautious approach to their reporting after several aspects of Roscosmos were effectively declared off limits.
A Federal Security Service (FSB) order, which took effect October 11, lays out information that it says could be used to threaten national security if received by foreign organizations or citizens.
The order doesn’t directly mention news gathering and is not a blanket ban on coverage of Roscosmos, but in a digital age where reporting is shared online or via social media, journalists say they could risk being in violation of the order.
It is also a provision of Russia’s foreign agent law, which brings further implications for media.
Spanning 60 types of information, the FSB details content from military, intelligence and space programs that it says could be used to threaten security. At Roscosmos, those topics include financial details, project timelines and some of its space programs; information about plans and restructuring at the space agency; and details on new technologies and materials.
Roscosmos did not respond to a request for comment on how the new order could affect foreign and domestic reporting and referred VOA to the FSB.
The FSB did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
Independent journalists and media analysts describe the order as a “tightening of the screw” and say it will make it harder to report in a transparent and independent way on the space program.
Alexander Khokhlov, a space and science reporter who contributes to media outlets including TV Rain and Meduza, says the new measures may limit his coverage.
As a precautionary measure, Khokhlov said, he may have to focus only on news coming from Western agencies and companies.
“I rarely cover the topics listed in the FSB’s order; however, their formulation is rather broad. I will further refrain from writing and commenting on the Roscosmos’ activity,” said Khokhlov, who is also member of the Northwestern Federation of Cosmonautics of Russia.
“I might as well focus on covering SpaceX and its gradual progress toward building a colony on Mars,” Khokhlov said, referring to the private space program founded by U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Khokhlov, who has reported on Russia’s space missions and the rise of the private space sector in the U.S., said the regulations could limit what science journalists can cover.
Describing it as “yet another step toward the information vacuum in the field of cosmonautics in Russia” Khokhlov said, “The risks are already obvious for those trying to present an alternative point of view.”
He cited the large number of journalists labeled as foreign agents in the past year.
As of October 15, the Ministry of Justice website lists 32 news outlets and 56 journalists who fall under the designation of foreign agent, including independent networks that are part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
Those added to the Russian Justice Ministry list must label all content, including news reports and personal social media posts, as content produced by a foreign agent. Individuals have to send in detailed reports of their finances. Failure to comply can result in fines and possibly criminal charges.
“It is a heavy legal and financial load for those (journalists) with the possibility for fines and even felony charges,” Khokhlov said.
Russia amended its existing foreign agent law in 2017, in response to the U.S. ordering news groups funded by Moscow to register under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Since then, Russia has used the designation against independent media, civil society organizations and even an election-monitoring group, in a move that critics say is aimed at punishing and discrediting critical and opposition voices.
Analyst Bach Avezdjanov, who until last year was a program officer for Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression program in New York, has been closely monitoring the impact of the law on the country’s independent press.
The FSB’s list “threatens further the already restricted information environment in Russia,” Avezdjanov told VOA.
“The Russian government does not hide its intent to arbitrarily designate anyone who collects, researches or reports for academic, journalistic or other purposes, information about Russia’s military and space program,” he said.
Avezdjanov said that regulations could be used to block reporting on allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
He cited an internal audit at the space agency that appeared to show corruption or mismanagement, which resulted in a loss of billions of rubles, and led to criminal cases.
But under paragraph 37 of the new FSB order, which bans information about financial or economic problems, such information “can no longer reach the eyes and ears of foreigners,” he said.
“In effect, the law built a new iron curtain around certain types of information,” Avezdjanov said.
This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.
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