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Amnesty International's Denis Krivosheev: "It seems the Russian authorities believe there can only be one message coming from the media in Russia." (file photo)

Russia's State Duma on November 15 passed legislation that would allow for the designation of foreign media organizations in the country as “foreign agents” and require them to declare full details about their funding, finances, and staffing. It still requires an upper-house vote and the signature of President Vladimir Putin.

Amnesty International has condemned the effort as “repressive legislation” that will tighten the Kremlin’s “stranglehold” on press freedom.

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke about the legislation with Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.

RFE/RL: Who is the Russian legislation on foreign-funded news organizations most likely to affect?

Denis Krivosheev: This is a piece of legislation which is intended to affect what essentially are the remaining few free media voices in Russia. Some of these tend to be foreign media with Russian services. Some of them were Russian media, initially, who had to relocate [outside of Russia] to be less affected by the restraints in Russia -- although those are now in the firing line, so to speak, under this legislation.

This legislation is intended as a measure of restraint on media. It does affect in a serious way those who will fall under its provisions.

RFE/RL: Why do you see this legislation as a serious blow to an already desperate situation for press freedom in Russia?

Krivosheev:
This legislation is a serious blow to media freedom in Russia for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is already a tried-and-tested measure. The purpose of this is to apply a toxic label on those who do independent work in Russia. We’ve seen this done with nongovernmental organizations.

Journalism has always been a dangerous profession in Russia. This [legislation] isn’t making it any easier, but makes it a whole lot worse."

For the purpose of what authorities did with the [2012] law on foreign agents, this was successful. NGOs have been smeared through the need to brand themselves as "foreign agents." It’s not a neutral term. It’s not a term which is about indicating where their funding comes from. It’s a term the purpose of which is to denigrate their work in the eyes of the Russian public. And now, the same measure will apply to media that is foreign registered.

RFE/RL: How else will this legislation restrain press freedoms in Russia?

Krivosheev: The other problem with this, although the legislation did not specifically restrict what follows -- in practice we have seen with NGOs that their access to state agencies, to officials, and to a number of platforms have been restricted once they found themselves on the "foreign agents" list. I imagine this will happen to media, as well. The access to key people and platforms and agencies will be restricted. And that will be a serious blow to journalists who try to do their work in Russia.

INFOGRAPHIC: How Russia Has Implemented Its 'Foreign Agent' Law (click to view)

I am sure there will be other consequences, financial and otherwise, from the onerous reporting obligations [about funding, finances, and staffing]. We will see a big change in practice after this.

RFE/RL: What earlier developments do you see that lead you to believe this legislation is part of a trend, a broader effort by Russia’s government, to create an echo chamber in the media where only the Kremlin’s point of view is presented to the Russian public?

Krivosheev: Over the last couple of years, perhaps even longer, we have seen very worrying trends. Journalism has always been a dangerous profession in Russia. This [legislation] isn’t making it any easier, but makes it a whole lot worse.

We’ve seen serious restrictions on the media. Those who didn’t support the government’s official position found themselves in difficult situations. Those who were independent became less so. Some had to change their editorial boards and go through other internal changes because the pressure can also be put on the owners, as well as the editors and the staff.

Russians React To 'Foreign Agent' Media Law
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We’ve seen restrictions, serious restrictions, in terms of space available to the media for broadcasting and reaching out to the general public. And this is just carrying on with the same work. It seems the Russian authorities believe there can only be one message coming from the media in Russia. And where the opportunities exist for alternative points of view, alternative media platforms, they are closing them one by one. And this [legislation] is another step [in this direction]. A big one.

Russians React To 'Foreign Agent' Media Law
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Russia's lower house of parliament has unanimously approved legislation that would authorize the government to designate media outlets receiving funding from abroad as "foreign agents."

Within hours of the measure's passage, the Russian Justice Ministry sent warnings to at least five 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.

The State Duma approved the amendments -- which Amnesty International said would deal a "serious blow" to media freedom in Russia -- in the third and final reading on November 15.

The move came two days after the Russian state-funded television channel RT registered in the United States under a decades-old law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

RT officials had complained repeatedly about being forced to comply with the law, and warned of retaliation.

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

Earlier on November 15, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin described the legislation as a "symmetrical response" to what he said was U.S. pressure against Russian journalists. And deputy Duma speaker Pyotr Tolstoi said it "will in no way affect freedom of speech in Russia."

Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin described it as a "symmetrical response."
Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin described it as a "symmetrical response."

But Amnesty International said the authorities would "tighten their stranglehold" if they approve the measure, worsening "what was already a fairly desperate situation for press freedom in Russia."

Russia's upper house was expected to take up the measure on November 22, after which it heads to President Vladimir Putin for his signature.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to say whether Putin would sign the measure, but he added that the bill gives Moscow the ability to respond to any "restrictions to the freedom of Russian media abroad."

Under the legislation, articles and broadcasts by registered media must be accompanied by a disclaimer informing audiences of the outlet's status as a "foreign agent."

"The measure will in no way affect freedom of speech in Russia," deputy speaker Pyotr Tolstoi said immediately before the vote.
"The measure will in no way affect freedom of speech in Russia," deputy speaker Pyotr Tolstoi said immediately before the vote.

It is unclear if the Justice Ministry will be able to shut down foreign-funded media outlets that refuse to register themselves as foreign agents. Tolstoi said on November 14 that media outlets that refuse "will stop working on the territory of the Russian Federation."

Shortly after the legislation’s passage, the ministry sent letters to RFE/RL’s Russian Service and to Idel.realii and Sibir.realii, Russian-language websites that focus on news from Russia's central Volga region and Siberia.

Also receiving warnings were Current Time TV, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, and Crimea Realities, which focuses on news from the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia occupied and seized in 2014.

The letters did not make any specific threats, except to note that the news operations might face restrictions under the new law.

For months, Moscow has complained that RT and a state-funded news agency called Sputnik have come under increasing pressure in the United States in the past year and has vowed to respond by targeting U.S. media in Russia.

Garri Minkh, the presidential administration's representative at the Duma, told state-run news agency TASS that Putin's administration "supports" the Duma bill.

INFOGRAPHIC: How Russia Has Implemented Its 'Foreign Agent' Law (Click on image or link to open)

A U.S. intelligence finding in January asserted that RT and Sputnik spread disinformation as part of a Russian-government effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Moscow has denied any such effort.

In a November 15 statement, RFE/RL said that 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."

"RFE/RL's job is to provide accurate and objective journalism to our Russian-speaking audiences worldwide, including in Russia," the statement concluded. "We look forward to continuing our work."

The Duma also approved amendments to the mass-media law that would allow the extrajudicial blocking of websites that the Russian government deemed "undesirable."

Currently, 11 international nonprofit organizations have been declared "undesirable" in Russia, but none of their websites has been blocked.

'Onerous Obligations'

Amnesty International said that the bill would impose "onerous obligations to declare full details of their funding, finances, and staffing."

Independent media outlets and journalists in Russia face "reprisals and risk attacks on an almost daily basis," said Denis Krivosheev, the organization’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia.

"This latest legislation takes obstacles for media working in Russia to a whole new level," Krivosheev said.

INTERVIEW: Amnesty Calls Russian Legislation On Foreign Media 'Serious Blow' To Journalists

Deputy speaker Tolstoi said on November 14 that foreign-funded news organizations that refused to register as foreign agents under the proposed legislation would be barred from operating in the country. The measure would not affect Russian media that were partially financed by foreign capital, he said.

Mikhail Fedotov, head of the presidential human rights council and an author of Russia's original mass-media law, criticized the amendments, telling the RBK news service that there was no need to amend the existing mass media law and that any "symmetrical response" should be implemented by the executive branch.

Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin also criticized the legislation

"The amendments on giving foreign agent status are being adopted hastily and are badly thought out," he wrote.

U.S. officials say that the existing Russian law regarding foreign agents differs from FARA, which was passed in 1938 to counter fears of Nazi propaganda and disinformation being spread in the United States.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said last month that the need for registration under FARA "is simply triggered when an entity or an individual engages in political activity."

The developments come as ties between the United States and Russia continue to be severely strained over issues including Moscow's alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election last year and its military intervention in Ukraine.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on November 14 that "our relations are degrading day by day" and "have reached the lowest point in recent decades."

With reporting by Meduza and TASS

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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