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Russian Lawmakers Expand Scope Of 'Foreign Agents' Law Limiting Press Freedom, Work Of NGOs

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After the State Duma, the bill goes to Russia's upper chamber, the Federation Council.

The Russian parliament's lower chamber has approved several controversial bills that human rights watchdogs and the opposition have said undermine democratic processes.

Among the legislation approved by the State Duma on December 23 was a series of amendments to the controversial law on "foreign agents" that requires organizations that have received the designation to report their activities and face financial audits.

The changes expand the scope of individuals and groups that can be designated "foreign agents," introduce new restrictions and registration and reporting requirements, and oblige the media to note the designation whenever they mention these individuals or groups.

The new law says individuals, including foreign journalists, involved in Russia's political developments or collecting materials and data related to Russia's defense or national security issues must be included on the list of foreign agents.

It also says that individuals labeled as "foreign agents" would be banned from joining the civil service or holding a municipal government position, while forcing them to mark their letters to authorities and other material with a "foreign agent" label.

Last month, Amnesty International slammed the proposed legislation saying it would "drastically limit and damage the work not only of civil society organizations that receive funds from outside Russia but many other groups as well."

Another bill related to "foreign agents" and approved on December 23 lays out a punishment of up to five years in prison for individuals or organizations labeled as foreign agents who fail to inform official entities about their status, and/or refuse to report their activities to Russian authorities.

The "foreign agent" law, originally passed in 2012, requires designated organizations to report their activities and face financial audits. Critics say the law has been arbitrarily applied to target Russian civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and political activists, including outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.

A further measure designating foreign-funded media as "foreign agents" was adopted in 2017, under which Russia's Justice Ministry listed several services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Current Time, and Voice of America (VOA) as "foreign agents." Current Time is the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in August warned that the upcoming amendments to the law on "foreign agents" would "impose new burdensome requirements" on RFE/RL's operations in Russia as well as on VOA's.

Pompeo told RFE/RL on August 12 said that he believed that "we think we can put real pressure and convince them that the right thing to do is to allow press freedom."

"We've condemned it. We've also imposed enormous sanctions on Russia for other elements of their malign activity," Pompeo said. "We hope that the rest of the world will join us in this. We hope that those nations that value the freedom of press, who want independent reporters to be able to ask questions, even if sometimes leaders don't like them, will join with us."

The State Duma also approved in a final reading on December 23 a bill that would allow the state media regulator, Roskomnadzor, to block websites that "discriminate against Russian media."

Roskomnadzor would be allowed to partially, fully restrict, or slow access to websites found in violation of the law.

The bill is seen affecting major social-media websites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

The State Duma also approved a bill on introducing jail terms for people found guilty of making slanderous comments on the Internet or in the media.

Under the legislation, a person convicted of slander on the Internet could face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 1 million rubles ($13,300).

People accused of making "slanderous" accusations of rape or other grave crimes could face up to five years behind bars, according to the bill.

Among other bills approved on December 23 is one that bans financial support of public events by foreign entities.

That legislation includes prohibiting the financing of public events in Russia by foreign governments, organizations, citizens, stateless citizens, individuals and organizations labeled as foreign agents, Russian citizens younger than 16, anonymous contributors, and Russian organizations that were registered less than one year before providing financial support to a public event.

All of the bills approved on December 23 must still be approved by the parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, before they are endorsed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax
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