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U.S. State Department, OSCE Condemn Russian Ruling Against RFE/RL Over 'Foreign-Agents' Law

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The U.S. State Department and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have denounced a Russian court ruling that found Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had violated a controversial "foreign-agents" law.

The July 6 statement by the media freedoms office of the Vienna-based OSCE came one day after a Moscow district court issued its ruling and fined RFE/RL 100,000 rubles ($1,600).

The court said RFE/RL failed to comply with a law regulating media outlets branded by the government as "foreign agents."

Lawyers for RFE/RL have defended the legally mandated filings made by the company, saying there was a lack of clarity as to when the reports were due.

“The court’s decision clearly shows that the 'foreign-agents' law unduly hinders the work of media outlets and narrows the space for freedom of the media in the Russian Federation,” Harlem Désir, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, said in a statement.

The July 5 ruling came eight months after the Justice Ministry slapped the “foreign-agent” label on RFE/RL, Voice of America (VOA), and several affiliated news services.

The designation was based on a law signed by President Vladimir Putin in November allowing the government to apply the label to media outlets who receive funding from abroad. The law drew sharp criticism from Western governments and rights activists.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency that supervises RFE/RL and VOA, on July 6 called the Moscow court decision "an attack on independent media."

The BBG said in a statement that the law to date has only been applied to U.S. government-funded outlets, whose independence it said is guaranteed by a legislative firewall, in what appears to be a "political attack" and "targeted campaign" against those "influential U.S. institutions."

"Neither RFE/RL nor anyone who works for them is an agent of the United States government," the BBG said, maintaining that the law is "discouraging the free exchange of ideas" while it "wrongfully stigmatizes our journalists and puts them at risk."

The court decision was "worrying and unacceptable, but it will not deter us from our mission to inform and engage people -- in Russia and around the world -- in support of freedom and democracy," the BBG said.

The U.S. State Department late on July 6 also said the Russian government appears to be "targeting" RFE/RL and VOA through its enforcement of the foreign-agent law and warned that the State Duma is moving to approve an expansion of the law that would enable the government to target individual journalists from those organizations as "foreign agents."

"This bill could provide the Russian government a new tool to target independent journalists and bloggers in retaliation for their work," department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

"The United States again calls on the Russian government to uphold its commitments...to respect the exercise of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, in Russia," she said.

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