Two international rights watchdogs have expressed concerns over the inclusion of the five Russian citizens on a controversial list of foreign agents seen by the West as a way for Russian authorities to clamp down on dissent.
The UN Human Rights Office and the OSCE's Representative on Freedom of the Media both on January 8 decried the move, saying that it curbs free speech and democratic practices.
"The UN Human Rights Office regrets the inclusion of the five individuals in the foreign agents list, which targets human rights defenders and journalists and appears to be aimed at limiting their freedom of expression and speech," Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office, said in a comment to RFE/RL on January 8.
The Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media added in a separate comment that the move "narrows the space for freedom of expression, freedom of the media, and free flow of information in the Russian Federation."
"[All] OSCE participating states have repeatedly affirmed (including in their 2018 Ministerial Council Decision) that the media in their territory should enjoy unrestricted access to foreign news and information services; that the public will enjoy similar freedom to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority regardless of frontiers, including through foreign publications and foreign broadcasts; and that any restriction in the exercise of this right will be prescribed by law and in accordance with international standards," the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media said in a written statement. .
On December 28, Russia said it had placed five people -- three journalists who contribute to RFE/RL and two human rights activists -- on the Justice Ministry's registry of "foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent."
Previously, only foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and rights groups had been placed on the registry, in keeping with Russia's passage of its controversial "foreign agents law" in 2012. The law was later expanded to include media outlets and independent journalists.
The three listed individuals affiliated with RFE/RL are Lyudmila Stavitskaya 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.
Prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov was also named to the registry, as was activist and Red Cross worker Darya Apakhonchich.
On December 29, the ministry expanded the list again, adding the Nasiliu.net human rights center, which deals with domestic violence cases.
The additions bring the total number of individuals or entities listed to 18, the majority of them affiliated with RFE/RL.
According to Russia's controversial "foreign agents law," any individual who distributes materials of a publication or a legal entity recognized as a foreign agent, participates in its creation, and receives foreign funding from abroad can be recognized as a "foreign media agent."
The Justice Ministry did not explain on what grounds it included the recent additions of the five individuals and one entity to the registry.
Russian officials have previously said that amending the "foreign agents law" to include mass media in 2017 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 rejected that claim, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws differ and that Russia uses its "foreign agent" legislation to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based rights group, called the law "devastating" for local NGOs, saying more than a dozen had been forced to close their doors.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a whole was listed in the original registry in December 2017, along with several of RFE/RL's news sites focusing on events in Russia and Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.
In November 2019, the list was expanded to include Sever.Realii. In February 2020, the Russian Justice Ministry added RFE/RL's corporate entity in Russia.
RFE/RL has said it is "reprehensible" that professional journalists were among the first individuals singled out by Russia as "foreign agents."
The Council of Europe also has expressed concerns over situation, saying that the foreign agent law in general -- "stifles the development of civil society and freedom of expression."