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The Kremlin’s latest legislative initiative to control information and silence opposition voices

A bill before the Russian parliament that would expand the status of “foreign agents” to private persons, including bloggers and citizen journalists, should be a source for serious concern. This legislative initiative would have a detrimental impact on the already restrictive environment for independent journalism in Russia and become a strong tool to silence opposition voices.

To allow for individuals to be labeled “foreign agents” is a proposed amendment to a bill which was first introduced in July 2012 by the governing United Russia party and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin on 20 July 2012. The law already covers non-governmental organisations and media outlets that receive any amount of funding from foreign sources.

The law requires them to indicate their foreign agent status in all their publications and statements and creates onerous reporting requirements and restrictions on the activities they may undertake. Criminal and administrative sanctions for non-compliance include fines of up to 900,000 rubles (approximately £10,900) or imprisonment of up to two years.

The word “foreign agent” (иностранный агент) in Russian has strong associations with cold war-era espionage, and the law has been criticised both in Russia and internationally as a violation of human rights and for being designed to counter opposition groups.

The law was one of a whole series of restrictive measures that were introduced by the Russian government in response to the anti-Kremlin protest movement that arose between the parliamentary and presidential elections in the winter of 2011 and 2012.

Since the law’s entry into force, NGOs and their directors have been fined tens of millions of rubles, dozens of NGOs have shut down because of unmanageable fines, while many NGO leaders have had to pay the fines out of their own pockets. The law is slowly destroying the civil sector and pushing campaigners to the brink of survival.

Of the more than 150 NGOs that the Russian Justice Ministry has labeled “foreign agents” since the law came into force, 29 have been environmental groups, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch. It said at least 14 of those environmental organisations have halted their work rather than continue to operate under the “foreign agent” law, as the reporting requirements are excessively burdensome for groups that often work on shoestring budgets.

The Committee for the Prevention of Torture, a Russian human rights organisation, filed for bankruptcy after receiving a fine of 900,000 rubles (approximately £10,900).

Yet, in November 2017, in a move heavily criticised by human rights organisations, the law was extended to include media outlets and now, the new amendments propose a further extension to include individuals such as bloggers and independent journalists, who will be required to register as foreign agents, go through an annual financial audit, submit reports about their work to the Justice Ministry, and put a “foreign agent” label on all content they publish.

The new amendments passed through the second reading on 19 November almost unanimously – of the 337 deputies present at the vote, only one abstained and the rest voted in favor. The final, third reading is scheduled for 21 November.

It comes at the same times as a sharp increase in the number of Russians valuing freedom of speech. A poll conducted by the independent Levada Center and released on 20 November, shows that in the last two years, the number of Russians who consider freedom of speech as one of the most important human rights has grown to 58 per cent from 34 per cent.

The new amendments make the “foreign agents” legislation, which already violates international standards on freedom of expression and association, unjustifiably tough, Galina Arapova, senior media lawyer at the Mass Media Defence Center in Russia, told Amnesty International.

“Journalists collaborating with foreign editorial offices will be the ones most affected by the law,” she said. “If they receive remuneration through foreign bank transfers to Russian banks, then this will formally be a sufficient basis for recognition as a foreign agent, so there is no guarantee that the regulatory authorities will be able to determine ‘foreign funded’ work from their other journalism.”

The requirement to register with the Ministry of Justice is creating onerous requirements, particularly for Russian bloggers living abroad.

The use of fines for the lack of labelling is likely to squeeze their reporting and blogs from the Russian Internet, as those on social networks will not repost for fear of sanctions. Bloggers have an important role in informing public opinion in Russia and this is an attempt to control this inconvenient source of information.

Amnesty International and nine other international press freedom organisations including Article 19, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and RSF signed a statement on 18 November urging Russia to drop the draft legislation.

“Russia’s move to label individuals as foreign agents is a further step to restrict free and independent media in the country. It will have a serious effect on international media cooperation with Russia, because any involvement with a foreign outlet will put journalists at risk of being labelled ‘foreign agents’,” the statement said.

Russian independent media outlet Meduza said that the new amendments “completely destroy the legal status of the media in Russia” as any individual will have to take on the same responsibilities as a newspaper or television channel. It will allow the Ministry of Justice to declare any person a “foreign agent” just for writing something online and at the same time receive money from abroad.

Kirill Martynov, Politics Editor of Novaya Gazeta, wrote a column arguing that Russian authorities came up with the amendments in order to attack YouTube, where some Russians have an audience comparable to that of the state-owned TV channels.

The YouTube channel of Alexey Navalny, a political activist and opposition politician, has over three million subscribers and because he receives about a dollar for every thousand views from YouTube, an American company, he could be forced to register as a foreign agent under the new law.

On 11 November, he published a video with the title “The secret life of a foreign agent”, ridiculing the authorities’ efforts to label him and the Anti-Corruption Foundation – his nonprofit organisation – foreign agents.

To conclude, the new law fits neatly into an established pattern in which the Kremlin selectively applies legal mechanisms to tighten the screws on political rights and freedoms while expanding its own mandate to control information. It has become a strong tool to silence opposition voices and the newest restrictions are part of a decade’s long effort by Putin’s regime to repress independent media and civil society in Russia.

In December 2018, IOHR interviewed Zhanna Nemtsova , whose father, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated in central Moscow in 2014. Her NGO was labeled a “foreign agent”. In the interview, she speaks about the threat to civil society.

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