‘We were told that we’re the enemies’ VTimes co-founder Alexander Gubsky on how the ‘foreign agent’ label killed this publication

Alexander GubskyAlexander Shcherbak / TASS

On Wednesday, June 3, the independent news outlet VTimes announced that it’s shutting down following the Russian Justice Ministry’s decision to designate its site administrator as a “foreign agent” media outlet. In a statement, VTimes’ editorial staff said that the project is unable to continue its operations due to the loss of advertisers, problems with newsmakers, and increased risks for its journalists (readers following the situation surrounding Meduza’s own “foreign agent” designation are likely familiar with this list of difficulties). VTimes launched less than a year ago: it was founded by journalists who walked away from the well-known business newspaper Vedomosti, after a change in ownership left the publication unable to operate according to the high journalistic standards it was known for (As Meduza reported, the oil giant Rosneft played a role in these events). To find out more about the decision to close VTimes, Meduza special correspondent Anastasia Yakoreva spoke to the publication’s co-founder, Alexander Gubsky.

Please note. This is a summary of Anastasia Yakoreva’s interview with Alexander Gubsky. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here. 

In a statement released on Wednesday, VTimes announced it will close on June 12 — nearly one month to the day that the Russian Justice Ministry labeled the publication a “foreign agent.” The announcement also coincided with another event that’s especially important for a business news outlet like VTimes — the 2021 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. But VTimes publisher and co-founder Alexander Gubsky tells Meduza that the timing was just a coincidence. “We didn’t specifically wait three weeks to announce it. We simply couldn’t wait any longer,” he explains.

In it’s editorial, VTimes said that their team considered “seven scenarios” for continuing the project, but in the end decided there wasn’t a viable way to move forward. As Gubsky clarifies in conversation with Meduza, it was actually the website administrator of vtimes.io that was added to Russia’s “foreign agent” list. But with that comes the obligation to label content distributed under the VTimes brand and register a legal entity in Russia — and the site administrator wasn’t willing to do the latter.

“The whole story is that the Russian regulatory authorities need to get some kind of Russian legal entity that they can put pressure on,” Gubsky says. “It took three weeks to analyze the situation […] Unfortunately, it turned out that we cannot continue to work as VTimes with the same media agenda and the same business plan.”

As Gubsky explains, registering a legal entity in Russia and keeping the VTimes brand would do little to help the news outlet’s situation. Thanks to the “foreign agent” label, “the brand still remains toxic.” “And then the pressure would go, if not on to the organization, then on to the people who make up this brand,” he says. “In the worst case scenario, all of these [options], each one of them, led to a real criminal case with real prison terms.”

Gubsky insists that funding wasn’t the main reason for VTimes closing up shop. “For us, the main factor was the media agenda. Although money was also a factor of course,” he explains. “We’re a business publication, how would we exist without officials, without big business? Essentially, we’re toxic to them. […] No matter what options we looked at, it’s impossible to continue working under this brand.”

The way he sees it, VTimes’ journalists simply can’t do their jobs if they’re forced to label themselves as “foreign agents.” “What are we going to do? Run and re-register every month? We made a serious [outlet], it worked, but we were told that we’re the enemies. But we aren’t enemies to anyone — we simply don’t think in the categories of ‘friend or foe.’ I don’t want to sew a yellow star on myself and I refuse to call myself a ‘foreign agent’ of my own free will. I’m a Russian citizen, a Russian patriot,” Gubsky tells Meduza.

After VTimes’ “foreign agent” designation, newsmakers began refusing to talk to their journalists, especially lobbyists, who are dependent on good relations with government officials. “In general, you have to understand that people are afraid. Same goes for advertisers. At the very least, they don’t understand what this means,” Gubsky says. “But it’s clear that living in Russia, we immediately imply the worst.” 

Asked if he knows why VTimes was labeled a “foreign agent,” Gubsky says he’s heard “six different versions” of the story — but in his opinion the formal reason doesn’t matter. “What’s the difference? We didn’t create an instrument of influence. We believe we’re clear and transparent people, we created a public good,” he tells Meduza. “We didn’t create an opposition media outlet, nor [an outlet fighting for or against] the regime, we made high-quality media that included a socio-political agenda, because it’s clear that all — or almost all — of our economic problems have political roots.”

As for the future of Russia’s media landscape, Gubsky says that the ongoing crackdown on independent journalism is bad for everyone. “Clearly the authorities don’t need high-quality, uncontrolled media. This is terrible for the country as a whole, and for the authorities too,” he maintains. “The authorities have three feedback channels: an independent judiciary, free elections, and independent media. All three feedback channels are being destroyed.” The way he sees it, it’s unclear where the Russian authorities plan to get their information about what’s actually happening in the country. “We’ve already returned or are about to return to the USSR, where there’s one thing on television and another on the street,” Gubsky warns.

Looking back on VTimes’ work, Gubsky says he’s proud of what the news outlet managed to accomplish in less than a year: “I have two feelings: deep satisfaction with what we achieved and deep disappointment with how it all ended. But the satisfaction prevails.” As for the days ahead, Gubsky tells Meduza he’ll still be working on closing VTimes. “Then we’ll have to gather our strength and our thoughts and move forward. We wrote that we’re not abandoning our principles and we’re not going to leave the profession,” he says. “[But] journalism really looks like a forbidden profession right now.”

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Interview by Anastasia Yakoreva

Summary by Eilish Hart

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