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RFE/RL President Jamie Fly: "It is an outrage that this law targets [journalists'] work and jeopardizes their security in an attempt to silence them and deprive Russian citizens of their right to seek reliable information." 

An amendment to an existing Russian law on media outlets deemed "foreign agents" that critics say is used to muzzle dissent ratchets up pressure on hundreds of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) correspondents in Russia who provide one of the few remaining alternatives to Kremlin-controlled news, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has said.

The amended law, signed by President Vladimir Putin on December 2, gives Russian authorities the power to label reporters who work for officially listed "foreign agent" organizations and receive financial or other material support from them as foreign agents themselves.

"RFE/RL works with hundreds of Russian correspondents across the country who are a lifeline for news-deprived local communities and who tackle important issues ignored by state media, but who, according to this law, should now, absurdly, be considered 'foreign agents,'" Fly said on December 4.

"These are exceptional and dedicated journalists. It is an outrage that this law targets their work and jeopardizes their security in an attempt to silence them and deprive Russian citizens of their right to seek reliable information."

Should anything a foreign media outlet publish violate Russian regulations, the new norms allow the authorities to block the websites of foreign agents or legal entities established by them, according to Russian media.

Nine RFE/RL reporting platforms have been designated a "foreign agent" as a result of a law from 2017 that brings media organizations under the purview of the original law that requires NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as "foreign agents" with Russia's Justice Ministry.

Russia passed the original foreign-agent law in 2012 following the biggest wave of anti-government protests since Vladimir Putin came to power. Putin blamed Western influence and money for those protests.

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).

Critics of the law say it stigmatizes organizations with the designation and would do the same to journalists if they are labeled as foreign agents.

RFE/RL operates a large bureau in Moscow, has hundreds of contributors across Russia, and has recently launched dedicated reporting units to provide up-close coverage of northern Russia (Sever.Realii) and Siberia (Sibir.Realii).

Its North Caucasus and Tatar-Bashkir-language services have similarly sought to make their reporting more accessible to regional audiences by putting up websites -- Kavkaz.Realii and Idel.Realii -- in Russian.

The digital and TV network Current Time relies on a reporting network that covers the entire space of the former Soviet Union to reach Russian speakers within and beyond Russia's borders.

A controversial case in Bryansk has seen a gender-transitioning woman receive three years' imprisonment in a male prison for disseminating pornography. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Michelle had no idea that the erotic anime images she posted on social media years ago could land her in an all-male prison and endanger her life.

But when a court in the western Russian city of Bryansk on November 29 handed the gender-transitioning woman three years' imprisonment for disseminating pornography, friends and rights watchdogs say, Michelle was given what could be a death sentence.

"If Michelle is dealt with in prison without regard for her transgender status, she will die there," says Tatyana Vinnichenko, director of the Moscow Community Center For LGBT Initiatives, which deals with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.

Nobody knew that Michelle, whose full name is being withheld to protect her safety, was transitioning -- her wife found out only when criminal charges were filed, and her former colleagues in the medical profession were unaware.

Lada Preobrazhenskaya, a friend who is helping Michelle in her legal case, said that the 53-year-old had been undergoing hormone therapy on her own for a couple years, but never received official diagnoses or prescriptions for the treatment and was still listed as a man in official documents.

"It all costs money. There are few endocrinologists in Russia trained to work with transgender people, let alone in the Bryansk region," Preobrazhenskaya told RFE/RL. "Our country is not prepared to solve the problems of transgender people, so many people solve their problems themselves."

Tried as a man, Michelle was found guilty by a district court in Bryansk of illegally disseminating pornography, a charge that can be punished by two to five years in prison.

'Complete Surprise'

In comments posted on Facebook by the Moscow Community Center For LGBT Initiatives, Michelle said that it came as a complete surprise when officers knocked on her door on July 13.

"You know, at the time it was so strange -- I looked at these two officers and saw that it was somehow funny to them," she said. "There was no personal hostility, and later neither from the investigator nor the prosecutor."

"I still cannot understand what is going on," she added.

One of the images (cropped here) that got Michelle into trouble.
One of the images (cropped here) that got Michelle into trouble.

As it turned out, the regional branch of the Interior Ministry had been investigating a VK account that Preobrazhenskaya said Michelle had not used in years.

An examination of the content conducted by the Center for Social-Cultural Expertise -- an NGO that has provided expert opinions that have ruled works by the punk protest group Pussy Riot to be immoral and Jehovah's Witnesses to be extremists -- determined in July that three images posted on Michelle's page in 2013-14 were pornographic and depicted people under the age of 14; specifically, a 12-year-old boy.

The graphic images in question, which have been obtained by RFE/RL, are caricatures that display male genitalia but provide no indication of the precise age of the subjects.

Michelle says "everyone giggled" when investigators showed up at her flat to take her to task over the images she posted on social media.
Michelle says "everyone giggled" when investigators showed up at her flat to take her to task over the images she posted on social media.

Following the initial questioning, Michelle's home was searched in August and a computer and other equipment were seized. In September, she was questioned by the Investigative Committee.

But according to Preobrazhenskaya, Michelle failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. "When I tried to persuade her to urgently get a lawyer, she and her wife thought it was nothing serious," Preobrazhenskaya said. "The investigators giggled, everyone giggled. Michelle said that nobody took this seriously."

On a lawyer's advice, Michelle pleaded guilty in the hope of receiving a suspended sentence. She was so confident of a positive outcome that she did not even take time off from her job as a doctor at a Bryansk hospital. Instead, she was found guilty, detained in court, and jailed in a cell for male prisoners.

'Incredibly Cruel'

Moscow Community Center For LGBT Initiatives lawyer Maria Chashchilova said in the group's Facebook post that the case was groundless and that "it remains a mystery how the examination was able to establish the age and gender of fictional anime characters."

Concerns have now turned to Michelle's health and safety.

Preobrazhenskaya said that Michelle had already begun to form breasts, prompting fears from family and friends that she will encounter violence from fellow inmates. And without a prescription, Preobrazhenskaya added, Michelle will be unable to continue her hormone treatments.

"This is incredibly cruel," Preobrazhenskaya told RFE/RL. "In addition, she has cancer in remission," she said, adding that imprisonment "will kill her."

As she awaits her transfer to prison, Michelle's VK page is headed by a new image -- a meme that declares "No! I am not porno #242," a reference to the legislation under which she was sentenced.

Written by Michael Scollon, based on reporting by Sergei Khazov-Cassia of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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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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