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.