2 Russian news sites, legal aid group, close under pressure

MOSCOW (AP) — Two Russian news outlets and a legal aid group backed by a leading Kremlin critic shut down Thursday after authorities blocked their websites, the government’s latest moves targeting independent media, opposition supporters and human rights activists ahead of Russia’s September parliamentary election.

The Otkrytye Media and MBKh Media news sites, as well the Pravozashchita Otkrytki legal aid group, announced they were ceasing operations, citing reports that their websites on Wednesday night were blocked over their alleged ties to organizations declared “undesirable” in Russia — a label that outlaws an organization and exposes its members, supporters and partners to prosecution.

All three organizations are backed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian tycoon who moved to London after spending a decade in prison in Russia on charges widely seen as political revenge for challenging President Vladimir Putin’s rule. Russian authorities have declared a number of organizations linked to Khodorkovsky “undesirable.”

Otkrytye Media said in a statement Thursday that it had received a grant from Khodorkovsky but never worked with “undesirable” organizations. Still, the outlet said it would shut down as “the risks for the project’s staff members are too high.” MBKh Media Editor-in-Chief Veronika Kutsyllo echoed the sentiment, saying on Facebook that she wasn’t “ready to endanger the freedom and lives of other people.”

“Unfortunately, the authorities don’t need media projects that are critical of what is happening in the country. The more criticism there is, the shorter the lifespan of a project. But we at least tried,” Otkrytye Media’s statement read.

Lawyer Anastasia Burakova, who worked with Pravozashchita Otkrytki, told the Dozhd TV channel “there was no other option” for the group but to shut down.

Independent media, journalists, opposition supporters and human rights activists in Russia have faced increased pressure ahead of the Sept. 19 vote, which is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his rule before the next presidential election in 2024.

The 68-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through constitutional changes last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.

In recent months, the government has designated a number of independent media outlets and journalists as “foreign agents” — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that could discredit the recipients — and raided the homes of several prominent reporters.

Three journalists of Otkrytye Media were labeled “foreign agents” last month.

The publisher of one outlet that released investigative reports exposing alleged corruption and abuses by top officials and tycoons close to Putin was outlawed as an “undesirable” organization.

Khodorkovsky said in a statement Thursday that the recent “political repressions” show “the regression of Putin’s regime and Putin personally towards the outdated Soviet model, adjusted for his personal greed.”

“Me and those of my allies who are prepared for the new level of risks will continue the resistance against the regime until it’s complete dismantlement,” Khodorkovsky said.