by Alina Polyakova
On November 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law legislation allowing the Russian government to designate media organizations that receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents.” Russia’s Justice Ministry, the agency tasked with identifying the specific media outlets to be targeted, has already notified Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), both funded by the U.S. government, that they must register as foreign agents. The new law, however, is not limited to government-funded media: any organization receiving foreign funding or based outside of Russia could fall under the “foreign agent” classification. The New York Times, CNN, and European outlets could be targeted in the near future. The law also grants the Russian authorities an expansive mandate to block online content, including social media websites, whose activities are deemed “undesirable” or “extremist.”
Russia has framed the law as reciprocal retaliation for the U.S. Department of Justice’s requirement that RT America (formerly Russia Today), a Kremlin-funded and controlled TV channel and website operating in the United States, register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). (The requirement came after RT was singled out in a January 2017 unclassified U.S. intelligence report on Russian interference as the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”) Yet this narrative is blatantly false. In reality, the law is part of a long-standing Kremlin project to muzzle independent media and civil society.
A DISTURBING PATTERN
Regardless of what RT or the Russian government may say, the Russian media law is in no way a proportionate response to RT’s registration under FARA. The United States’ legislation does not limit the activities of RT. Rather, it is a disclosure statute that requires the registered agent to reveal income from the foreign principal and allow the DOJ to inspect its business records when asked. RT is still free to continue publishing and disseminating content in the United States. There is no First Amendment conflict with FARA: RT has not and will not be censored, its website will not be blocked, and it will continue to broadcast its propaganda on American cable channels. (The network may, however, lose certain privileges afforded to actual journalistic organizations: Congress, for example, withdrew RT’s news credentials after its registration.)
In contrast, the newest Russian restrictions on international media are part of a more than decade long effort by Putin’s regime to repress independent media, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia. 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.
The recently signed legislation is actually an amendment to a 2006 law that puts limits on access to information by so-called undesirable foreign NGOs, as well as an expansion of a 2012 law that requires NGOs receiving any foreign funding to register as foreign agents. A 2015 legal extension allows the Kremlin to ban any NGO it considers “undesirable.” They must also disclose their funding sources and label all published material (both online and print) as products of a foreign agent. Put together, these measures and their subsequent countless amendments have set up a complex legal web of repression. They have also granted the Russian government the power to block access to information that it designates extremist or undesirable, including any distributed information appealing for public protest.
The Kremlin applies official labels such as “foreign agent,” “undesirable,” or “extremist” to any organization that challenges the government line. The foreign agent classification greatly limits an organization’s ability to operate in Russia. Groups and outlets registered as such become targets for government raids, randomly applied suspensions, and criminal prosecution. Employees face harassment by the security services at work and at home. In the face of such harassment—which now includes potential fines of up to 5 million rubles (or $85,000) for media outlets—many organizations refuse to register, de facto forcing them to shut down their operations.
The Russian human-rights NGO Committee for the Prevention of Torture, for example, filed for bankruptcy after receiving 900,000 rubles (approximately $15,300) in fines. Well known international NGOs such as the MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, Open Society Foundation, and the International Republican Institute all closed their operations in Russia after being classified as undesirable foreign agents. And independent domestic NGOs, particularly those promoting democracy, human rights, electoral transparency, and even environmental issues, have been fined, audited, and raided after refusing to register or “failing” to prove that they are not foreign agents. Examples include the Levada Center, the only independent Russian polling organization; GOLOS, an independent election-monitoring organization; and Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest NGOs, devoted to remembering the victims of communism. What’s more, the government continues to push the law to new levels of absurdity to justify legitimate dissent: on December 1, the Justice Ministry branded a long-haul truckers’ group, which has been protesting road taxes for two years, a foreign agent.
MORE CENSORHIP TO COME?
It is not yet clear how the new expansion of the foreign agent law will affect the ability of Western media to work in Russia. The government has already moved to ban all U.S. media from access to the Russian parliament after RT’s news credentials were rescinded in the United States. The new law will certainly not make independent journalistic activities easier, but the reality for independent media outlets operating in Russia has long been depressing. VOA and RFE/RL have been banned from broadcasting in the country since 2014 and 2012, respectively. (The United States did not retaliate at the time.) Their correspondents in Russia are consistently harassed. Some have even been severely beaten and jailed, while the number of journalists who have been attacked or killed for exposing the regime’s wrongdoing continues to grow. In October, Tatyana Felgenhauer, deputy editor of Ekho Moskvy, an independent Russian radio station, was stabbed by a man who broke into the office. Felgenhauer survived the attack, but barely. The journalist Nikolai Andrushchenko died after a severe beating in April 2017; Dmitry Popkov, an anti-corruption reporter, was found dead from gunshot wounds in May 2017; and, of course, Anna Politkovskaya, the well-known investigative journalist who reported on the war in Chechnya, was killed in in 2006.
At the time of writing, no Western news outlets besides VOA and RFE/RL had been notified that they had been declared a foreign agent. Yet censorship is worsening. Roskomnadzor, the Russian media regulator, announced that it had established a procedure for banning the distribution of foreign print media in Russia, as mandated by the new law. Three days after the law was signed, Andrew Roth, the Russia correspondent for The Washington Post, tweeted, “You literally can’t find a major foreign newspaper in Moscow.”
In a country where laws are applied at the whims of the authorities, the consequences of this latest measure are difficult to predict. But with the Russian presidential elections scheduled for March 2018, it is clear that the Kremlin will seek to use all the means at its disposal to censor dissent, repress independent voices, and stifle non-state media. Although this coming crackdown will make Western journalists’ work more difficult, it is the Russian independent media that will suffer the most.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.