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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.

BRUSSELS -- The European Union has criticized legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin that empowers Russia’s government to designate media outlets receiving funding from abroad as "foreign agents" and impose sanctions against them.

The new law was published on Russia's official legal information Internet portal on November 25.

Maja Kocijancic, the spokesperson of the European Commission for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said in a November 26 statement that the "legislation goes against Russia's human rights obligations and commitments."

Kocijancic called the law "a further threat to free and independent media and access to information" and "yet another attempt to shrink the space for independent voices in Russia."

The measure was passed by Russia's Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, on November 22 in a unanimous 154-0 vote, with one abstention.

It was unanimously approved in the third and final reading in the lower house, 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.

In response to news that Putin signed the law, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said, "We cannot speculate at this time on the effect of the new law, since no news organization has yet been specifically named as a 'foreign agent' and the restrictions to be imposed on such 'agents' have not been announced."

"We remain committed to continuing our journalistic work, in the interests of providing accurate and objective news to our Russian-speaking audiences," he added.

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 U.S. operating unit of Russian state-funded television channel RT -- a company called T&R Productions LLC -- registered in the United States under a decades-old law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The U.S. Justice Department required the RT affiliate 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.

John Lansing, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, said in a statement on November 25 that "any characterization of such steps as reciprocity for U.S. actions severely distorts reality."

"Russian media, including RT and Sputnik, are free to operate in the United States and can be, and are, carried by U.S. cable television outlets and FM radio stations," Lansing added. "However, U.S international media, including VOA and RFE/RL, are banned from television and radio in Russia."

He also said that "our journalists on assignment are harassed by Russian authorities and face extensive restrictions on their work."

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."

Crimean Tatar campaigner Vedzhie Kashka died after several fellow activists were detained by Russian officers. (file photo)

A prominent elderly Crimean Tatar activist has died after being caught up in an incident in which Russian security officers in Crimea detained several of her associates.

Vedzhie Kashka, 82, became unwell and was taken away by ambulance in the Crimean city of Simferopol on November 23 after several fellow activists were detained by Russian officers on suspicion of extortion.

Kashka subsequently died, according to sources in a local hospital and fellow Crimean Tatar activists.

Speaking in Brussels after a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he had informed Tusk "about the terrible events that took place in Crimea today" and lauded Kashka's "very important history of defending the interests of the Crimean Tatar people."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin posted on Twitter that Kashka was a "heroic and courageous woman" and that her death was "another tragedy of despicable repressions Russia exerts in Crimea."

Crimean Tatar activists Bekir Degermendzhi, Asan Chapukh, and Kyazim Ametov were detained in the incident, which took place in a cafe in the Crimean capital.

Russian state media quoted the Federal Security Service (FSB) branch in Crimea as saying that several members of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar self-governing body that has been outlawed by Russian authorities, were detained in Simferopol on suspicion of extorting $7,000 from a Turkish citizen.

However, Mejlis member Gayana Yuksel told journalists that the detainees were not members of the body.

Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency, citing an unidentified law enforcement source, said that Kashka died due to "stress" and accused the suspects of "cynically" using her as a pawn in the alleged extortion plot.

'They've Come For Our Elders'

But Crimean Tatar activist Nariman Dzhelalov told RFE/RL that the Turkish citizen had duped Kashka out of a large amount of money, and that the detained men were trying to convince him to return the sum.

The Turkish man "tried to get out of it, and the security services used the situation to apply pressure on this group of activists," Dzhelalov said.

Russian officers detain Crimean Tatar activist Bekir Degermendzhi in Simferopol on November 23.
Russian officers detain Crimean Tatar activist Bekir Degermendzhi in Simferopol on November 23.

Kashka had been a prominent Crimean Tatar activist since the 1950s and was a colleague of Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Her death triggered an outpouring of outrage and grief among fellow Crimean Tatars.

"They’ve come for our elders," journalist Aidar Muzhdabayev wrote on Facebook, adding that it was "impossible to hold back tears."

Muzhdabayev and others said Russian security officers had planned to detain the veteran activist as well before she fell ill. That could not be immediately confirmed, and Russian authorities did not immediately release an official statement on the matter.

Rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they call a persistent campaign of oppression targeting members of the indigenous Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar minority and other citizens who opposed Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014.

Human Rights Watch said in a report released November 14 that de facto Russian authorities in the region have "intensified persecution" of Crimean Tatars due to their opposition to the Russian takeover of their historic homeland.

With reporting by Rossiskaya Gazeta, TASS, and RIA Novosti

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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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