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An interior view of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow, Russia, January 20, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

UPDATE: On November 22, 2017, Federation Council approved the draft law on 'foreign agents' media.

(Moscow) – Draft legislation pending in the Russian parliament to impose restrictions on foreign media would further undermine media freedom in Russia, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament should reject the law as incompatible with fundamental standards on free speech, which are at the heart of a democratic society.

On November 15, 2017, the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, adopted, with record speed, a draft law that stipulates that the government may designate any media organization or information distributors of foreign origin that receive any funding from foreign sources as “foreign media performing the functions of a foreign agent.” The State Duma chairman, Viacheslav Volodin, stated bluntly that the bill aims to retaliate against a US Department of Justice’ September request that the Russian state-funded television channel, RT, comply with registration requirements under the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).

“The US government’s misguided decision to request for RT to register under FARA gave the Kremlin a platform to retaliate, and they have done so with a full throttle attack on media freedom,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But sadly, the bill will not simply hurt foreign media, but worse, unjustifiably limit Russian citizens’ right to access information and ideas.”

The November amendments define the term “media outlets” broadly to include any foreign entity that distributes “to unlimited audience, print, audio, audiovisual and other messages and materials.” The definition appears to be broad enough in theory to be applied to a wide range of groups and people, not just media outlets or individual bloggers, but academic or nongovernmental organizations and social media platforms.

On November 15, the draft was sent for approval to the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament.

The bill further stipulates that should a foreign media outlet be designated a foreign agent, it must comply with the requirements of Russia’s “foreign agents’ law.” The draft however fails to explain the basis on which the Russian government will choose which foreign media it designates foreign agents, nor does it describe the registration procedure. The law also fails to identify which government agency would be tasked with overseeing its implementation. 

While a motivation behind the amendments may be the application of FARA to RT, the November bill imposes asymmetrical measures. RT is not the first, nor only, media outlet connected to a foreign government subject to US registration requirements – Chinese, Japanese, and Korean media entities are also current registrants. FARA, first enacted in 1938 and reformed in the 1960s to identify and regulate lobbyists working for foreign governments, applies to organizations and individuals that operate under direction and control of a foreign principal. But the US law does not equate receiving foreign funding, in part or in whole, with being under the direction and control of a foreign principal.

On November 15, following the adoption of the draft law by the State Duma, Russia’s Ministry of Justice sent notices to several US-government-funded media operating in Russia under Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, such as the television network Nastoyashee Vremya (Current Time) and Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty, the Russian language service of RFE/RL), informing them that the authorities might designate them “foreign agent” media. The notices did not elaborate on specific restrictions that would be applied.

Adopted in 2012 and amended in 2014 and 2016, the “foreign agents’ law” requires Russian independent groups to register as “foreign agents” if they receive any foreign funding and engage in broadly defined “political activity.” The law requires such organizations to clearly mark all publications “foreign agent,” and to file extensive reports on their funding and activities, in addition to the extensive reporting they already file to the tax, Justice Ministry, and other agencies. The penalties for violating the law range from administrative fines for entities to criminal sanctions, including imprisonment, for individuals.

“The text of the media bill may be vague, but the Russian authorities’ intentions could not be clearer,” Williamson said. “This legislation is tailor-made to be selectively and politically enforced, and to silence voices they do not want Russian people to hear.”

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