Russian Parliament Launches Fresh Attack on Freedom of Speech Under Guise of “Foreign Agents” Law

November 16, 2017

On 13 November Russia Today was officially registered as a foreign agent in the USA. Russian authorities, including the president himself, claimed that the decision was an “attack on freedom of speech” and promised to impose counter sanctions.

Just over a month ago the US Department of Justice requested that Russia Today and Radio Sputnik register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.  In return Russia warned the USA that if this becomes a reality, Russia would act in a similar fashion towards American media outlets based in Russia.

The media dispute taking place between Russia and America is symptomatic of a broader attack on freedom of expression.  The list of so-called ‘undesirable’ organisations in Russia has grown significantly this year, including Open Russia and a range of other charitable and humanitarian non-government organisations.

The Russian parliament has just passed a bill allowing the authorities to block the websites of ‘undesirable organisations’, making their operation in the Russian Federation both illegal and inaccessible.   On November 15 the bill passed both its second and third hearings and was accepted by all 414 deputies with no abstentions.  It is due to pass in to law no later that New Year.

The bill states that: “A legal entity registered in a foreign nation that operates without registering as a company and is engaged in spreading printed, audio, audio-visual or any other content, could be considered as a foreign agent despite its organizational or legal form, if they receive funding or any other property from the foreign nations or organizations or any foreign nationals, stateless people or authorized people who get money from abroad.”

The bill also states that ‘undesirable’ NGOs and foreign agents will face similar sanctions, including the blocking of their internet resources.  There are currently 11 organizations on the undesirable list.

Peter Tolstoy, Deputy Duma Speaker and one of the sponsors of the bill, stated: “This decision will not affect freedom of speech in any way. In the case that a media source is considered as a foreign agent, then it should act as NGO agents act.”

In May 2015 the Attorney General’s office was given the power to officially assign ‘undesirable’ status to foreign non-governmental organizations if they “threaten the constitutional order of the Russian Federation”.  However, since the law was brought into action none of the web sites have been blocked as of yet.  The authors of the law believe that “resources are being used to prepare and disseminate materials aimed at discrediting Russia’s domestic and foreign policies, to form a negative public opinion and destabilize the situation in the country.”

Despite multiple attempts by the government to intimidate and exclude Open Russia from public life, it is still operating and providing vital support to Russian civil society. Timur Valeev, Executive Director of the Open Russia movement, wrote:  “The bill on the blocking of web sites that are associated with undesirable organizations has been in development for over 6 months. At least, this is what was stated by the deputy chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee Yuri Shvytkin, who is a lawmaker and member of the ruling “United Russia” party. The bill is just another attempt to destroy Open Russia.”

The Open Russia Movement, which does not exist as a legal entity and has no connection to the ‘undesirable’ British organisation Otkrytaya Rossiya, has suffered repeated harassment by the security services this year as a result of its successful civil society activity, including helping over 60 independent candidates to win election in the recent Moscow municipal elections.

Likewise, the popular independent news website is a separate Russian organisation that does not officially come under the remits of the law on ‘undesirable organisations’.

For the bill to pass into law it must first be agreed by the Federation Council and then signed by the President himself.  The other possible candidates to be named as “foreign agents” under the new law are Radio Liberty, Voice of America, CNN and Deutsche Welle.

The nature of the Kremlin’s response to the foreign media dispute is symptomatic of a broader war on freedom of expression in Russia.  This form of tit-for-tat diplomacy is handing ammunition to Russia’s rulers which they will certainly utilise in the fight against dissenting voices, particularly in the sphere of online media, in which the Kremlin has fallen short of exercising the control it would like.