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Journalism Watchdog Says Russia Should Repeal 'Foreign Agents' Law


The logo of Russia's telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor is reflected in a laptop screen.
The logo of Russia's telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor is reflected in a laptop screen.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the Russian authorities should repeal the controversial "foreign agents" law and ensure that national telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor is not used to threaten and harass media organizations and censure journalists.

"Russian authorities regularly think up new tools and implementations to obstruct the flow of news and information, to the detriment of their own public," Gulnoza Said, the New York-based media-rights group's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said on January 14.

The CPJ's comments come two days after Roskomnadzor drew up its first eight administrative protocols -- all against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- for violating the "foreign agents" law.

The offenses are "for noncompliance by the media performing the functions of a foreign agent with the requirements of the law on labeling information disseminated by them," Roskomnadzor said in a statement on its website on January 12.

The 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 region.

The outlets failed to label their content as "foreign agent-produced," the protocols said.

The foreign agents law, originally passed in 2012, requires designated organizations to report their activities and face financial audits. Amendments to the law in December oblige the media to note the designation whenever they mention these individuals or groups and expanded the law to cover individuals who work at outlets that receive foreign funding.

Roskomnadzor's January 12 statement said the protocols would be sent to a judge within three working days to decide on imposing fines, which can be as high as 500,000 rubles ($6,800) for companies and 50,000 rubles ($679) for individuals. Individuals can also face up to five years in prison if charged and convicted of violating the foreign agents law.

It is the first time Russian authorities have pursued fines under the foreign agents law.

"Moscow has demonstrated by its repressive threats exactly why Radio Liberty and Current Time are needed," RFE/RL President Ted Lipien said. "The Kremlin can make it harder for us to bring accurate information to Russians and others. But it can't stop us from playing that essential role."

CPJ said it requested comment from Roskomnadzor and the Russian Ministry of Justice but did not receive any responses.

Moscow last month began adding individuals to the list, including three journalists who contribute to RFE/RL: Lyudmila Savitskaya and Sergei Markelov, freelance correspondents for the North Desk (Sever.Realii) of RFE/RL's Russian Service; and Denis Kamalyagin, editor-in-chief of the online news site Pskov Province and a contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Authorities also added the Czech Republic-based news agency Medium-Orient, the parent company of the news website Caucasus Times, to the list in December.

Islam Tekushev, Medium-Orient's project coordinator, told CPJ that Medium-Orient had no permanent presence or bureau in Russia, which Tekushev said should make it exempt from the foreign agents law. He plans to appeal the decision in a Russian court.

Russian officials have said that its move in 2017 to amend the foreign agents law to include mass media was a "symmetrical response" to the U.S. requirement that Russia's state-funded channel RT register under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

U.S. officials have said the action is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws differ and that Russia uses its foreign agents law to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas.

In a separate reaction to the Russian move, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on January 15 that the 27-member bloc "strongly disagrees with the recent decisions by the authorities of the Russian Federation."

"The EU, once again, urges the Russian authorities to repeal these legislations and to respect their international obligations on freedom of association, assembly, and expression," Peter Stano, Borrell's spokesman, said in a statement on January 15.

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