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Russia's Federation Council Passes 'Foreign Agents' Media Bill

The speaker of the Russian parliament’s upper chamber, Valentina Matviyenko, said the measure was adopted after lawmakers considered criticism from the presidential human rights council that it be sent back for revision.

Russia's Federation Council has approved legislation that would empower the government to designate media outlets receiving funding from abroad as "foreign agents" and impose sanctions against them.

The measure passed the upper chamber of the Russian parliament on November 22 in a unanimous 154-0 vote, with one abstention. It will now be sent to President Vladimir Putin for signature.

Federation Council head Valentina Matviyenko said the measure was adopted after lawmakers considered criticism from the presidential human rights council, which said the measure was flawed and urged that it be sent back to the lower house for revision.

The legislation was unanimously passed in the third and final reading in the State Duma on November 15. Within hours, the Justice Ministry sent warnings to several Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) news services.

The letters did not specify what potential restrictions they 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.

RFE/RL was among several media outlets that Russian officials warned could be labeled a foreign agent, a list that also included the Voice of America (VOA), CNN, and Germany's international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle.

The international rights organization Amnesty International has said the legislation would deal a "serious blow" to media freedom in Russia, although Russian officials have said it would not apply to domestic media.

Russian officials have called the new legislation a "symmetrical response" to what they describe as U.S. pressure on Russian media. On November 13, the Russian state-funded television channel RT registered in the United States under a decades-old law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The U.S. Justice Department required RT to register in the wake of a January finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that RT and Russia's Sputnik news agency spread disinformation as part of a Russian-government effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In a November 15 statement, RFE/RL said the "situation regarding Russian media in the U.S. and U.S. media in Russia remains vastly unequal."

"RT and Sputnik distribute freely in the U.S., whereas RFE/RL has lost its broadcast affiliates in Russia due to administrative pressures, and has no access to cable," it said. "RFE/RL reporters are subject to harassment and even physical attack in Russia."

Visiting the Moscow bureau of RFE/RL and VOA on November 17, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman said that the Russian legislation was a "big concern" for the United States and that "the principles of free media in any free society and democracy are absolutely critical for strength and well-being."

Putin's representative to the Duma said on November 15 that his administration supported the legislation.

With reporting by TASS and Meduza