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A general view of a session of Russian State Duma in Moscow

The Russian State Duma has voted to prohibit U.S. media outlets branded by the government as "foreign agents" from entering the lower house of parliament.

Lawmakers in the chamber adopted the resolution in a 413 to 1 vote on December 6.

It means that reporters for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA), which were designated as foreign agents by the Justice Ministry on December 5, will be barred from the Duma.

"The decision to strip us of access to the Duma is regrettable," RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said. "It is another restriction on our journalistic activity in Russia. It makes it harder for us to provide independent and accurate information on the legislature's activities to the Russian people."

The Duma, which is dominated by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, passed a bill last month enabling the ministry to declare foreign-based or foreign-funded media outlets foreign agents. President Vladimir Putin signed it into law on November 25.

The United States, European Union, and international media freedom and human rights groups have sharply criticized the law.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on December 5 that it was "reprehensible that Russia, which restricts its own independent, critical media, is now taking action to obstruct the work of international outlets that provide a vital alternative news source to Russian citizens."

Russian officials have said the law is a "symmetrical response" after Russia's state-funded channel RT -- which U.S. authorities accuse of spreading propaganda -- was required to register its U.S. operating unit under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

U.S. officials say the action is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws are different and that Russia uses its "foreign agent" legislation to silence dissent and discourage a free exchange of ideas.

The Duma ban comes after the organization overseeing media access to the U.S. Congress stripped RT of its press credentials for the legislature.

Duma deputies initially announced plans to ban all U.S. media, but the Foreign Ministry later made clear that the government wanted the ban to affect only those outlets designated as foreign agents.

In a November 15 statement, RFE/RL said there was no symmetry in Russia's actions. It said that while RT and state-funded news outlet Sputnik distributed freely in the United States, RFE/RL "has lost its broadcast affiliates in Russia due to administrative pressures" and has no access to cable, and that "RFE/RL reporters are subject to harassment and even physical attack in Russia."

RFE/RL and VOA are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. agency that supervises civilian government broadcasting and media operations. VOA is a federal entity, while RFE/RL is a private, nonprofit organization funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress.

With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and RIA Novosti
Azerbaijani authorities placed a five-year travel ban on Khadija Ismayilova in 2016.

Two UN human rights experts are urging Azerbaijan to lift its travel ban on investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova in order to strengthen media freedom in the country.

David Kaye and Michel Forst, UN Human Rights Council special rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression and the situation of human rights defenders, respectively, said in a December 5 statement, “The measures against Ismayilova by the authorities go far beyond what is legitimate. It is detrimental to her individual case and also to the exercise of independent journalism in the country.”

Ismayilova was invited to speak at a seminar and to receive an award for her investigative work on December 1 but was unable to attend because of a five-year travel ban placed on her in 2016.

“Khadija Ismayilova’s courageous work as an investigative journalist has earned her a Right Livelihood Award for 2017, which she is unable to receive because the very same work has been used to place her under the travel ban,” Kaye and Forst said.

“The ban stifles her right to freedom of expression as it is aimed at preventing her from traveling abroad to speak about human rights issues," they said. "We urge the authorities to lift it and to ensure that journalism is not being restricted under false pretenses.”

Ismayilova -- who has unsuccessfully challenged the travel ban in court -- has also been invited to an event at the Graduate Institute of Geneva on December 6.

After spending nearly 18 months in jail on charges widely viewed as retaliation for her investigative work, Ismayilova was released in May 2016.

Kaye and Forst also criticized a November 14 court decision that froze Ismayilova’s bank account and prevents her from receiving award money, which they said hinders her work as a journalist.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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