Russia Using Foreign Agent Law to Attack Journalism, Media Say

Life for Lyudmila Savitskaya changed dramatically at the end of 2020. Russian officials started to closely monitor the journalist’s articles, social media posts and even her spending habits.  The reason for the scrutiny: Savitskaya is one of a Russian journalist and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributor Lyudmila Savitskaya is seen in an undated photo.Penalties for noncomplianceThe consequences of violating Russia’s foreign agent legislation are severe.  In March, tougher sanctions for individuals were enforced. Those who fail to submit reports to the Ministry of Justice face up to five years in prison.  When the legislation was introduced in 2012, it was used mainly to suppress human rights work or those promoting and sharing details of civic information such as legal and voting rights.  The label was applied to dozens of groups, including the human rights organization A blacklist of foreign agents, seen here in a screenshot from the Russian Justice Ministry’s website, shows Voice of America (1), Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe (7) and Current Time (5), among others.Moscow says the amendments were a response to the U.S. government ordering the state-owned broadcaster RT America to FILE – People stand outside Russia’s Justice Ministry building, in Moscow, Russia Dec. 4, 2017.Radio Liberty tried to comply with the requirements law, despite its objections.  “It is one thing to put a disclaimer and file reports to the Ministry of Justice, and quite another to mark every publication with the insulting statement, considering that on many platforms it means a significant loss of audience,” Shary said. “The requirement that every video on YouTube or other platforms must start with a 15-second warning effectively kills that material.”Shary believes the process is political and aimed at pushing out or significantly limiting Radio Liberty. He noted that the increased anti-media campaign and use of the “foreign agent” label come ahead of elections scheduled for the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, later this year.”It is a fight against the spread of ideas. Journalism is not a crime; therefore, persecution of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is persecution of the entire profession, not some technical measures, as the Russian authorities try to present it,” he said,In April, Radio Liberty appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, saying that Russia’s actions violated the right to freedom of speech and opinion provided in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia ratified the convention when it joined the Council of Europe in 1996.FILE – Signage is seen on the headquarters building of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), with the United States, RFE/RL and the Czech Republic’s flags fluttering in the foreground, in Prague. (Jan Rambousek – RFE/RL)’Like a snare’Three other popular news websites that are known for independent reporting and have no connection to the U.S. are also listed as foreign agent media: the Latvia-based Meduza, VTimes and PASMI, a Russian outlet that covers corruption and has said it has no foreign funding.Galina Timchenko, journalist and chief executive of Meduza, said she despairs at Moscow’s policy.”If I am a conscientious person, I must give up. If I am not, then I must play by the rules, but I must be very careful,” Timchenko said. “This law, in my opinion, is like a snare: The more you fight it, the more you get entangled in it. So far, the situation looks rather hopeless.”Meduza has become too prominent for officials to ignore, Timchenko said. “The country is becoming more and more closed, the government is looking for enemies everywhere, and it is finally our turn. Meduza is the largest independent publisher. Of course, we stand out like a sore thumb.”Labeling an outlet as a “foreign agent” has obvious consequences, Timchenko said. “Experts would not want to talk to us, we are losing advertisers, and our employees can personally be designated as foreign agent media.”FILE – A man passes by the office of the “Memorial” human rights group in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 21, 2012. The building has been defaced with the words “Foreign Agent (Loves) USA” spray-painted on its facade.In a statement last week, VTimes announced it was closing because the designation has resulted in experts refusing to speak with its reporters and advertisers pulling out. The news website was created by journalists who left Russia’s financial paper Vedomosti in 2020 in protest of a newly appointed editor-in-chief who they say was censoring content.  Officials, including Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and current deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, deny that the legislation is repressive. In a June 1 interview with Kommersant, Medvedev said Russia has “quite liberal legislation” and that the concept is “not our invention.”But Maria Lipman, an expert at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, holds a different view.
“Since Soviet times, the word ‘agent’ has traditionally been associated with a ‘foreign intelligence agent’ in the Russian language. Moreover, the sinister nature of a ‘foreign intelligence agent’ was exacerbated by the Soviet spy mania that existed for decades. An ‘agent’ is someone who is infiltrating, sneaking around to do us harm, some horrible evil,” Lipman said.She added that the label carries troubling connotations that send a message to audiences.  “An agent, in the Russian mind, is a person who represents foreign intelligence, who is working for a foreign country, who is in that sense a foreigner or a traitor, and what is being asked here is to agree with this.” US lawmakers respondU.S. lawmakers have highlighted the legislation’s impact on restricting or reducing foreign or critical media.  In a statement shared with VOA, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen said she stands with media who are targeted and will push for policies that hold President Vladimir Putin to account.   “The Kremlin’s effort to silence government opposition, whether by targeting members of the press or political rivals, must be called out at every opportunity,” she said. “Some of the most brutish behavior has been levied against journalists working to expose the truth, despite the danger they face by doing so. It shouldn’t have to be that way.”  Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul, a Republican, told VOA’s Russian Service earlier this year that President Joe Biden must raise the issue of media persecution during his personal conversations with Putin.  The two leaders are due to meet in Geneva on June 16. 

About The Author

Leave a Reply