Human Rights Watch (HRW) has joined other nongovernmental organizations in slamming a bill circulating in the lower house of Russia's parliament, calling it "a potentially very dangerous addition to a growing body of oppressive 'foreign agents' laws."
Many independent groups in Russian have seen their funding shrink and their staff intimidated or prosecuted since Russia’s "foreign agents" law targeting organizations came into force in 2012.
The legislation was expanded last year to journalists and bloggers and, if the new bill introduced in the State Duma last week is adopted, it would include "almost anyone," HRW warned in a statement on November 23.
The draft law "drastically expands the scope of individuals and groups that can be designated 'foreign agents,' introduces new restrictions and registration and reporting requirements, and obliges the media to note the designation whenever they mention these individuals or groups," according to the New York-based watchdog.
Amnesty International has said the new bill "signals a new witch hunt of civil society groups and human rights defenders standing up for justice and dignity."
Under the new bill, a person of any nationality can be designated a "foreign agent" if they receive money from a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or a foreign or stateless person, and engage in political activity, or are deemed to gather information on Russian military activities that "can be used against Russia’s security or interests."
That could jeopardize rights groups' reporting on human rights violations by Russian forces in armed conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere, HRW said.
The draft exempts diplomatic personnel and accredited foreign journalists, but such journalists engaging in "foreign agent" activities "incompatible with their professional journalistic activities" can still be designated.
“For now, human rights defenders, environmentalists, and other activists can avoid the unwarranted and toxic 'foreign agent label,' by shutting their organizations and continuing their activism as individuals," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.
"But under this draft, they would have to end their work entirely, or assume for themselves the 'foreign agent' label, which would isolate them from Russian society," he added.