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Watchdog

Wednesday 7 April 2021

RFE/RL's bureau in Moscow (file photo)

A court in Moscow has upheld fines imposed by Russia's media-monitoring agency against RFE/RL's Russian-language services for alleged violations of the country's controversial "foreign agent" laws.

On April 7, the Tverskoi District Court upheld 5.5 million rubles ($70,700) in fines, rejecting RFE/RL's appeals against them.

In all, the Roskomnadzor state monitoring agency has filed 390 protocols against RFE/RL for failing to mark its materials distributed in Russia as the product of a Russian-government-designated "foreign agent." The court has so far upheld about 260 of the protocols with total fines approaching $1 million.

RFE/RL has not complied with the labeling requirements.

Roskomnadzor issued a statement saying RFE/RL must pay the fines within 60 days. If the company fails to pay, the agency warned it could "restrict access" to RFE/RL's websites in Russia.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said that the broadcaster was "being targeted by the Russian authorities because we continue to provide a growing audience in Russia with objective news and information at a moment when the Kremlin is trying to limit the Russian people’s access to information."

"We will not abandon our audience no matter how many illegitimate fines the Russian authorities impose on us. We will continue to fight these attacks on our journalistic independence through all possible means," he added.

RFE/RL continues to appeal the fines and has said it would do so at the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

One day earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Moscow had imposed "invasive labeling requirements and fines" in order to "drive RFE/RL out of Russia."

Russia's so-called "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as "foreign agents," and to submit to audits. Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media.

In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL's Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time on the list.

Earlier this year, Russian courts began imposing large fines against RFE/RL for failing to mark its articles with a government-prescribed label as required by rules adopted in October 2020.

Roskomnadzor last year adopted rules requiring listed media to mark all written materials with a lengthy notice in large text, all radio materials with an audio statement, and all video materials with a 15-second text declaration.

RFE/RL has called the fines "a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation." Human Rights Watch has described the foreign agent legislation as "restrictive" and intended "to demonize independent groups."

The fines against RFE/RL come as the Russian government is moving to strengthen the so-called foreign agent laws.

On April 7, the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, passed in its third reading a law about the participation of designated "foreign agents" in elections. If the measure becomes law, individuals who were affiliated with a designated "foreign agent" organization or media outlet at any point in the previous two years would have to announce that fact on their campaign materials.

In addition, "foreign agent" NGOs and media outlets would be barred from campaigning for any candidate or party or advocating any position on referendums

On April 5, President Vladimir Putin signed into law additional restrictions on nongovernmental organizations that have been listed as "foreign agents."

Under the new law, the government has the right to conduct spot audits of such organizations whenever they receive a report that the organization has participated in an event involving foreign NGOs that have been designated "undesirable" in Russia.

The new law also obligates designated "foreign agent" organizations to present the program of all activities to the government in advance and gives the Justice Ministry the power to ban any activities entirely or partially in advance. Failure to comply with the new law could result in the liquidation of the listed NGO.

The changes come as Russia prepares for national elections to the State Duma, which must be held by September 19.

Aside from RFE/RL, the only other foreign media organizations to have been designated under the foreign agent law are VOA and a small, obscure Czech web portal.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and Interfax
Paval Sevyarynets is one of dozens of activists and politicians who were detained in Minsk and several other cities across Belarus during rallies in June last year

MINSK -- The criminal case of Belarusian opposition member Paval Sevyarynets, who has been in custody in Minsk since June on a charge of taking part in mass protests in the country's capital, has been moved to a court in the eastern city of Mahilyou.

The politician's wife, Volha Sevyarynets, told RFE/RL on April 7 that her husband is expected to be transferred from a detention center in Minsk to Mahilyou for the trial. The date of the trial remains unknown.

No reason for the move was given but many believe that the authorities took this decision to try to lower the profile of the proceedings by making it harder for journalists and the international community to follow. Mahilyou is almost 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of Minsk.

Sevyarynets, a co-chairman of the non-registered opposition Belarusian Christian Democratic Party, is one of dozens of activists and politicians who were detained in Minsk and several other cities across Belarus during rallies in June last year. At these events, hundreds of demonstrators were collecting signatures necessary to register candidates other than the authoritarian incumbent, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for an August 9 presidential election.

Sevyarynets' detention has been prolonged several times since his initial arrest.

If convicted, he faces up to eight years in prison.

Relatives and colleagues of several other jailed opposition activists -- including Yauhen Afnahel, Andrey Voynich, Paval Yukhnevich, Maksim Vinyarski, Iryna Shchasnaya, and Dzmitry Kazlou -- said earlier that they will be tried along with Sevyarynets in Mahilyou.

Lukashenka, who has ruled the country since 1994, was declared the winner in the election, which was widely viewed as rigged in his favor.

Thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest the results, saying Lukashenka's challenger, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, actually won the vote.

Tsikhanouskaya left Belarus for Lithuania after the election for security reasons, while Lukashenka has directed a brutal postelection crackdown in which almost 30,000 people have been detained, hundreds beaten, several killed, and journalists targeted.

Lukashenka, who has run Belarus since 1994, and other top officials have been slapped with sanctions by the West, which refuses to recognize him as the legitimate leader of the country.

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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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