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Russia's FSB Unveils Broad List Of Topics That Could Result In 'Foreign Agent' Label

The headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow (file photo)
The headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Russia’s main domestic security service has published a 60-point list of non-secret topics that could result in people or organizations being designated as “foreign agents” if they cover or write about them.

The Federal Security Service document, dated September 28 but published on October 1, is the latest in a widening net of restrictions under a 9-year-old law that has been used to target independent media outlets, civil society groups, rights activists, and others.

The list includes broad topics such as collecting information about “the development of military-political circumstances” and “the location, numbers, and armaments” of military forces.

It also includes military purchases and contracts, imports of dual-use products, investigations of crimes in the military, and “problems, including financial and economic ones, constraining the development" of the Roskosmos space agency.

Collecting information on the characteristics of weapons and military technology and “information about compliance with the law and the moral-psychological climate inside the armed forces” were other topics included on the list.

Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly.

It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that are deemed by the government to engage in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.

Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media.

Under amendments adopted at the end of 2020, any individual -- whether a Russian citizen or a foreigner -- who is collecting information on any topic on the Federal Security Service list must voluntarily file with the Justice Ministry a request to be designated as a “foreign agent” or face criminal prosecution.

In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL’s Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL, on the list.

At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its “foreign agents” media list and to impose restrictions on them. Several RFE/RL journalists have since been added to the list.

On September 29, the Russian government added several organizations and 22 individuals to its various “foreign agent” lists.

As of October 1, 72 organizations and individuals have been included on the Justice Ministry’s media list alone.

The 2020 amendments also include the creation of another register of “foreign agent” individuals who do not qualify as “foreign-funded media.” No one has yet been named to that list.

News of the list reverberated among journalists and experts who write about subjects like Russia’s military or its space program.

Marc Bennetts, the Moscow correspondent for The Times and the Sunday Times newspapers in the U.K., said that a Russian military expert had refused to be interviewed by him recently for fear of being labeled a foreign agent.

“I thought he was being somewhat over-cautious -- I was wrong,” Bennetts wrote in a post to Twitter.

The laws have been broadly criticized within Russia and abroad as an unjustified assault on independent media and civil society.

“Groups including Russia’s most prominent human rights organizations have been struggling for years to fight off illegitimate state interference, and this bill will make the fight even harder,” Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch said shortly before the December 2020 amendments were adopted. “The Russian government should halt its efforts to stifle independent groups and comply with its obligations under international law.”