Russia updates ‘foreign agent’ law target to individual journalists and, possibly, social media posters

NGO Grafitti The office of a Russian NGO defaces with the words "foreign agent."

For the past eight years, non-profit groups in Russia have contended with a law branding them as “foreign agents” if they accept even nominal funding from abroad and engage in so-called “political activity,” levying fines and confronting them with bureaucratic hurdles that have often forced them to shut down.

Now, individuals who publish anything online and receive any money from foreign sources will face the same legal obstacles.

Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin signed into law several legislative amendments that will require individuals to register with Russia’s Justice Ministry as foreign agents if they publish, “printed, audio, audiovisual, or other reports and materials” while also receiving money from foreign governments, foreign organizations – or even simply foreign citizens.

Russian lawmakers passed the amendments in recent weeks despite opposition from activists, public figures, and international critics, who argued that the new restrictions would further stifle free speech. Russians don’t generally face outright censorship online, but they fear legal consequences for posting messages that could be perceived as anti-government. The new amendments seem devised to heighten that anxiety.

“The new norms allow the Russian government to block websites of foreign agents or legal entities established by them in case the information published by foreign media outlets violates Russian regulations,” the official TASS Russian newswire explains.

“If someone writes certain stories related to the socio-political situation, then [that person] risks possibly appearing [on the list of foreign agents],” Russian lawmaker Leonid Levin told TASS.

But because of the measure’s vague wording, it could be applied to individuals who distribute suspect content. This could deal a serious blow to Russia’s active blogosphere and social media environment. These platforms have long been considered open and safe for political debate.

Groups including Human Rights Watch and Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement that the law “will have a detrimental impact on the already restrictive environment for independent journalism in Russia.”

“It will have a serious effect on international media cooperation with Russia because any involvement with a foreign outlet will put journalists at risk of being labeled ‘foreign agents,’” the groups write. “It will also become a strong tool to silence opposition voices. Bloggers have an important role in informing public opinion in Russia and this is an attempt to control this inconvenient source of information,” they write.

The Russian lawmakers said they were responding to foreign agent laws in other countries, pointing to the case of Maria Butina, the Russian gun-rights activist deported from the United States in October after being convicted of conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government.

The amendments also appear to be pushback against the US Justice Department, which in 2017 required the Russia-funded channel RT America to register as a foreign agent.

Like many of Russia’s laws restricting freedom of expression, the new amendments appear to be designed for selective application in order to act as a deterrent. A lawmaker who helped draft the law, Vasily Piskarev, said that he expected the amendments to apply to “a small circle of individuals.”

“After inclusion on the register, these citizens and media entities can continue their creative activities and continue to publish, provided they fulfill certain conditions,” he added.

Russia’s daily Kommersant newspaper noted the vagueness of the law as it relates to Internet sharing culture, writing that “half the country” would risk running afoul of the new amendments. Russians working with foreign companies that receive foreign funding or scientists receiving international grants could be implicated under the amendments.

Failure to register as a foreign agent, or mark one’s stories or posts as coming from a foreign agent will be punishable by a yet-undetermined fine.

Among the news outlets designated as foreign actors in Russia since 2017 are Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America, which are funded by US Congress. Such outlets are now required to fulfill extensive financial reporting obligations to the Russian government.

Russia’s foreign agent law first appeared in 2012 in an effort to end foreign funding of Russian non-government organizations. Civil society activists said the law was a throwback to the Soviet era and its culture of labeling anything with foreign associations as suspect and treasonous.

A poll taken in 2017 confirmed that association. When the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, asked Russians what they thought when they heard the term “foreign agent” as applied to NGOs, well over half said it inspires suspicion and fear. The Levada Center itself was labeled a foreign agent in 2018. Dozens of complaints about the foreign agent law have been lodged with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but the court has yet to rule on them.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no