Exclusive-Investigative media outlet fleeing Russia to escape crackdown, editor says

Roman Badanin, chief editor of investigative news outlet "Proekt", speaks during an interview with Reuters in New York, U.S., July 27, 2021. Picture taken July 27, 2021. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Roman Badanin, chief editor of investigative news outlet Proekt, has left Russia with no plans to return and is evacuating his staff to avoid possible prosecution after Proekt was outlawed in a media crackdown, he told Reuters.

Proekt has published a series of deeply researched and unflattering investigations into Russia's ruling elite. Russian authorities declared it an "undesirable" organisation on national security grounds on July 15, effectively banning it.

The move was part of a widening crackdown ahead of September's parliamentary election that has targeted media regarded by authorities as hostile and foreign-backed.

Badanin, in an interview in New York, said he had no plans to return to Russia soon since he could face criminal prosecution. Under a 2015 law, members of "undesirable" groups can be fined or jailed for up to six years for ignoring the ban.

The Kremlin denies media are targeted for political reasons and says any action taken against outlets or their staff result from specific circumstances and are motivated by the need to uphold the law.

Badanin said he did not know where he would settle and that he was only in New York temporarily. He was on holiday with his wife and children abroad when Proekt was labelled "undesirable" and he decided on the spot not to return to Russia.

He said staff at Proekt were also exposed due to a criminal investigation into alleged slander against the outlet as well as a push by authorities to label some journalists, including several that work at Proekt, as "foreign agents".

The term carries negative, Soviet-era connotations and subjects those designated to extra government scrutiny and labelling requirements. Police last month raided the homes of Badanin, his deputy Mikhail Rubin and one of Proekt's reporters in the slander case. Rubin was briefly detained.

"We are trying to evacuate staff - if the staff members agree, of course - to one of the nearby countries," Badanin said.

He said Rubin is also in New York and has no plans to return to Moscow. Both have been labelled "foreign agents".

Badanin said Proekt would continue to function in some form, although details of how that would work in practice remain unclear. "The main difference is that a large part of the team will be out of Russia in order to avoid the possibility of any legal and extra-legal action against them," he said.

Several other non-state outlets have complained of mounting government pressure though none have been labelled "undesirable".

(Additional reporting by Anton Zverev Writing by Tom Balmforth Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich)

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