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Russia has formally moved to restrict the activities of Pacific Environment, labeling the longtime U.S.-based environmental and advocacy group an “undesirable organization.”

The group is the latest in a growing number of nongovernmental organizations to be blacklisted by the Justice Ministry, which announced the move on August 28.

It followed a decision last week by the Prosecutor-General’s Office to seek the designation, which said Pacific Environment posed "a threat to the constitutional foundations of Russia and state security."

The San Francisco-based organization has worked in Russia’s Siberia, Far East, and Arctic regions for years, helping to fund local groups and raise awareness of issues like endangered species in Primorsky Krai, oil pollution on Sakhalin, and other matters. It also advocates in other Pacific Rim countries.

The group did not immediately respond to a call and an e-mail seeking comment.

The group is the 15th organization to be blacklisted under the law adopted in 2015 but the first environmental group to be placed on the "undesirables" list.

The blacklist has so far targeted mainly U.S. democracy-promoting organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, or groups funded by figures like U.S billionaire George Soros and exiled Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The crackdown on foreign organizations followed a separate law passed three years earlier known as the "foreign agents" law. That was aimed at restricting “organizations performing the function of foreign agents” -- which meant Russian nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding and conduct “political activities."

Dozens of Russian organizations have been labeled "foreign agents," a designation that requires lengthy, often onerous reporting requirements.

Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov

The founder of Telegram defended the company’s new privacy policy, insisting it would not result in turning over users’ data to Russian intelligence agencies but would also discourage extremists from using the secure-messaging app.

Pavel Durov’s comments to RFE/RL on August 28 came as Telegram faces increased pressure from Russian security agencies who have pressured the company to turn over the encrypted “keys.”

Those demands have worried users of the app, which is hugely popular in Russia, Iran, and other countries with authoritarian governments.

In April, a Moscow court ruled that regulators could block Telegram because of Durov’s refusal to turn over the encryption keys. That sparked protests in Moscow and elsewhere.

On August 28, the company announced a change in its privacy policy, allowing the possibility for turning over a user's Internet Protocol (IP) address and phone number if there was a court order that alleged a user had ties to extremism or terrorism.

Durov, a renowned Internet entrepreneur who left Russia under pressure in 2014 and now lives abroad, told RFE/RL that the policy change was sparked by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, a sweeping regulation that came into effect this year governing how Internet companies store and use personal data.

“We previously had no real privacy policy and had to come up with one this summer to comply with” the EU policy, Durov said in a text message. “We haven't shared any terrorists' data with authorities yet, but our theoretical ability to do so is another measure we've taken to discourage terrorists from abusing our platform."

The company said there have been no such court orders to date.

The move to block Telegram -- which has met with mixed success -- has deepened concerns that the government is seeking to close avenues for dissent as President Vladimir Putin begins a new six-year term.

Pavel Chikov, a lawyer for Telegram, also defended the new policy.

"As representatives of Telegram, we have never denied the right and even the responsibility of the authorities to fight terrorism. On the contrary, they offered a civilized way: a judicial request in exchange for disclosure, and not even correspondence but only IP and phone number,” Chikov said.

“The interests of national security and inviolability of private life must be found. Telegram offers its own version. The FSB offered nothing,” he said.

With reporting by Current Time TV

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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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