The Russian Justice Ministry has declared Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Voice of America (VOA), and several affiliated news services "foreign agents " under new legislation that has been criticized by Western governments and media-freedom advocates.
A statement on the Justice Ministry website said that in accordance with a new Russian law on mass media, it has decided to list RFE/RL, VOA, Current Time TV, and RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, Siberia.Reality, Idel.Reality, Factograph, Kavkaz Realii, and Crimea.Reality as "foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent."
The one-sentence Justice Ministry statement did not specify what potential restrictions the media outlets could face, but lawmakers have said designated media could be subjected to detailed financial-reporting requirements and required to label published material as coming from a foreign agent.
A Russian bill enabling the government to designate any foreign media outlet a "foreign agent" passed quickly through parliament and was signed by President Vladimir Putin on November 25.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said that the broadcaster was aware of the Justice Ministry's announcement but has "received no details of what this designation may mean for us."
"We will study all communications from the ministry and other Russian official organizations carefully," he added. "At the same time, we remain committed to continuing our journalistic work in the interests of providing accurate and objective news to our Russian-speaking audiences."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Russia's Justice Ministry to "immediately reverse its anti-press action."
"It is reprehensible that Russia, which restricts its own independent, critical media, is now taking action to obstruct the work of international outlets that provide a vital alternative news source to Russian citizens," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a December 5 statement.
Russian officials have said the law is a "symmetrical response" after state-funded channel RT -- which U.S. authorities accuse of spreading propaganda -- was required to register its U.S. operating unit under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
U.S. officials say the action is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws are different and that Russia uses its "foreign-agent" legislation to silence dissent and discourage a free exchange of ideas.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on December 4 that media outlets designated as foreign agents would not be stripped of their accreditation with the ministry and would be able to "go ahead with journalistic activity in Russia calmly and without any hindrances."
However, the State Duma is expected to pass a bill this week that would bar U.S. media outlets that are designated as foreign agents from entering the lower house of parliament. A senior lawmaker in the Federation Council said the upper parliament house will also consider a ban.
Both chambers are dominated by the ruling United Russia party and do the Kremlin's bidding.
The European Union has said the Russia legislation "goes against Russia's human rights obligations and commitments" and called it a "threat to free and independent media and access to information."
Human Rights Watch has condemned the Russian legislation as a "full-throttle attack on media freedom" and said it was "tailor-made to be selectively and politically enforced, and to silence voices they do not want Russian people to hear."
RFE/RL and VOA are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. agency that supervises civilian government broadcasting and media operations. VOA is a federal entity, while RFE/RL is a private, nonprofit organization funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress.