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MOSCOW -- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc. (RFE/RL) has appealed a string of Russian court decisions to fine several of the broadcaster's Russian-language endeavours and the general director of its operations in Russia for allegedly failing to comply with new restrictions under the country’s controversial “foreign agent” law.

RFE/RL's lawyers on February 5 filed the appeals against the decisions by the Tverskoi District Court in Moscow to approve several administrative protocols submitted by Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor "for noncompliance by the media performing the functions of a foreign agent with the requirements of the law on labeling information disseminated by them."

Among other things, the law on foreign agents requires certain news organizations that receive foreign funding to label content within Russia as being produced by a “foreign agent.”

RFE/RL's lawyers stated in their appeals that Roskomnadzor’s moves prevent journalists from performing professional activities and contradict the Russian Constitution and laws on media by restricting competition.

The appeals also say that censorship is officially banned in Russia, stressing that Roskomnadzor’s orders will "distort the essence of reports [and] change the way they are received by the audience."

According to the lawyers, following Roskomnadzor's requests would create distrust and rejection of the reports and materials of RFE/RL's projects, while many of the requests cannot even be technically executed.

“These fines represent nothing less than a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation, targeting a media company whose editorial independence is protected by law," RFE/RL's Regional Director for Europe and TV Production Kiryl Sukhotski said.

"Our audiences in Russia have long depended on RFE/RL to be trustworthy, credible, and factual; to be an alternative to disinformation and spin. These qualities are, and will always remain, at the core of RFE/RL’s reporting,” Sukhotski said.

Russian regulators have singled out RFE/RL, whose editorial independence is also enshrined in U.S. law, over other foreign news operations in Russia.

An independent nonprofit corporation that receives funding from the U.S. Congress, RFE/RL has not complied with the "foreign agent" law, while the mounting fines could potentially force the company to shutter its presence within Russia.

The February 5 appeal regards the court's January 27 decisions regarding the first four protocols that imposed a total of 1.1 million rubles ($14,500).

At this moment, the combined fines overall total 7.15 million rubles ($94,000), a sum that may increase as court decisions on Roskomnadzor's other protocols targeting RFE/RL are pending.

Roskomnadzor's protocols target four of RFE/RL's Russian-language projects -- its main service for Russia, Radio Liberty; the Current Time TV and digital network; and Siberia.Reality and Idel.Reality, two regional sites delivering local news and information to audiences in Siberia and the Volga-Urals.

RFE/RL also says that the law on foreign agents puts its journalists at risk for criminal prosecution.

U.S. Republican and Democratic lawmakers recently called for new sanctions against Moscow if the Kremlin moves to enforce the stringent restrictions and punishing fines that threaten RFE/RL’s news operations in Russia.

Since early in Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the Kremlin has steadily tightened the screws on independent media. The country is ranked 149th out of 180 places in the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders.

Belarusian blogger Paval Spiryn at a court hearing in Minsk last month.

MINSK -- A blogger in Belarus has been sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for two videos posted online that he says are investigative journalism but authorities said incited social discord.

The Minsk City Court found 36-year-old Paval Spiryn guilty of the charges on February 5 and sentenced him the same day.

The case stemmed around two videos Spiryn posted on YouTube -- one about illegal drugs operations in Belarus and one focusing on police brutality in the dispersal of protesters during ongoing rallies demanding the resignation of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Spiryn has rejected the accusations saying he is being persecuted for the subject matter his journalism covers.

Lukashenka was officially declared the victor of an August 9 presidential election, but opposition and public outrage over what they saw as a rigged vote has sparked continuous protests since, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets with demands that the authoritarian leader step down and new elections be conducted.

Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country.

Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained.

In a separate case on February 5, a different court in Minsk sentenced 29-year-old artist Alyaksandr Nurzdinau to four years in prison, finding him guilty of taking part in the unsanctioned rallies in August and attacking police.

Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any wrongdoing with regard to the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down and holding new elections.

The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka, 66, as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the "falsification" of the vote and the postelection crackdown.

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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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