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Russian Duma Approves 'Foreign Agents' Bill That Threatens Journalists With Label

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In December 2017, the Russian Justice Ministry listed several RFE/RL services and projects as "foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent." (file photo)

The Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved the final reading of a bill allowing reporters who work for organizations officially listed as foreign agents to be designated as foreign agents themselves.

The bill, approved on November 21, says that individuals may be listed as foreign agents if they collaborate with foreign media organizations and receive financial or other material support from them.

The bill now has to be approved by the parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, before President Vladimir Putin signs it into the law.

Russia passed the foreign agent law -- which requires all NGOs receiving foreign funding to register -- in 2012 following the biggest wave of anti-government protests since Vladimir Putin came to power. Putin blamed Western influence and money for those protests.

Critics of the law say it stigmatizes organizations with the designation and would do the same to journalists if they are labeled as foreign agents.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said on November 21 that the law "invades" the lives and security of reporters and "is reminiscent of the darkest times in Russia’s past."

RFE/RL has already been the target of the foreign agent law.

On November 15, Russia's Justice Ministry listed RFE/RL's Sever.Realii website as a "foreign agent" saying the decision was based on conclusions made by the parliamentary committee on an investigation into meddling in the country's internal affairs.

"This law appears to be part of a dangerous, escalating effort to target RFE/RL journalists and other foreign media, and a further step toward ensuring that the Russian people only receive the information the Kremlin wants them to," Fly said in his November 21 statement.

In December 2017, the Justice Ministry listed Current Time TV, several RFE/RL services and projects, such as its Russian Service, Tatar-Bashkir Service, Sibir.Realii, Idel.Realii, Factograph, Kavkaz Realii, and Krym.Realii, as well as the Voice of America, as "foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent."

Russian officials have said the law is a "symmetrical response" after Russia's 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 have said 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.

Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based rights group, in 2017 called the law "devastating" for local NGOs, saying more than a dozen had been forced to close their doors.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax
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