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FAQ – RFE/RL, Russia, and 'Foreign Agent' laws


  • Why did RFE/RL decide not to adhere to the Foreign Agent Law? Even if the law is cumbersome, wouldn't it have been worth it in order to stay in country?

RFE/RL did adhere to the law, submitting extensive financial reporting and creating a Russian legal entity as required by the law. What RFE/RL is not complying with are the onerous and invasive labeling regulations on all RFE/RL content imposed by Roskomnadzor in October 2020. Were RFE/RL to comply with this regulation, it would drastically reduce our online viewership and our ability to reach our audiences on social and other digital platforms. It will restrict outside organizations' and individuals' ability to use, cite, and share our information or even be interviewed in our articles in fear of government reprisal, and ultimately represent an invasion of our editorial processes by the Russian government

Russia's Foreign Agent law violates the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The law negatively affects the ability of RFE/RL and other named “foreign agent” media to operate as independent media. Given the severely negative connotation of the term “foreign agent” in Russia, where it associates with being a spy or traitor, the designation serves to dissuade a many in our target audience from consuming our products, and places our journalists and freelancers at risk of being personally labeled foreign agents.

  • Why didn’t RFE/RL pay the fines?

Paying the labeling fines would be a tacit acknowledgment that our journalists are "foreign agents," which they are not. They are Russian nationals producing high quality journalism in their native language for a Russian audience. We will not bend to a law that violates the critical freedoms of the press and expression. The foreign agent designation is highly harmful to journalists, and we will not abide by the Russian government's efforts to restrict the free press.

  • Aren't RFE/RL and RT in similar situations? If RT has to comply with U.S. law, why doesn't RFE/RL have to do the same in Russia?

There is no comparison between the two requirements. RT’s American office was asked to register as a “foreign agent” under the U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act following a report by the U.S. intelligence community that stated the network played a role in Moscow's efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Soon after, RFE/RL and several of its Russian-language reporting projects had the “foreign agent” media designation imposed on them by the Russian Justice Ministry. There is no invasive labeling required of RT and Sputnik under U.S. law and RT and Sputnik remain free to operate and engage with American audiences, while for years RFE/RL’s Russian entity has been banned from the Russian airwaves and blocked from all platforms except digital and satellite. Now, RFE/RL’s bank accounts in Russia have been frozen and no similar actions have been taken by the United States Government against Russian state-funded and controlled media in the United States.

  • Is the Foreign Agent law a Russian version of the FARA law in the U.S.?

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) does not restrict freedom of expression, does not affect the dissemination of content or an agent's ability to lobby or publish information. It also applies neutrally to all foreign countries. The law simply requires public disclosure of specific activities and relationships through registration with the U.S. Justice Department. FARA does not limit publishing of materials or viewpoints; it simply requires registration, general labeling of information, and recordkeeping.

In comparison, Russia's Foreign Agent Laws are broadly applied to independent media organizations, individual journalists, and NGOs, even if they are of Russian origin. Private citizens are also at risk of being labeled "foreign agents" for sharing information on social media or attending political events held by those designated as "foreign agents." According to the updated Foreign Agent law, any individual who engages in "political activities" in Russia that are perceived to be in the interest of a "foreign source" can be labeled as a foreign agent, even if they do not receive direct funding from outside sources. The new law states that "other organizational and methodological assistance" is incriminating. This law restricts all citizens' ability to interact with "foreign agents" and has clear political undertones. Unlike FARA, it effectively undermines freedom of expression and asserts control over the flow of information.

  • If the office is closed by the Government of Russia, what will RFE/RL do? How will you reach your audiences?

RFE/RL has a long history of reaching audiences in difficult circumstances. We have a large network of freelancers, bureaus in neighboring countries, and sophisticated technology that will allow us to produce and disseminate excellent content. If the government interferes with the distribution of our content, we are prepared to deploy the full range of anti-censorship technologies in order to maintain our relationship with our audiences.

  • What is the current status of the Moscow bureau and its staff? Which journalists are still working for RFE/RL?

Some of our journalists have decided to relocate to RFE/RL bureaus outside of the country so they can ensure continuity of programming to Russian audiences should the Moscow Bureau be closed by authorities. They have made individual decisions based on their own situations. RFE/RL is doing everything it can to support journalists who are facing difficult decisions about their professional and personal future.

  • Are your journalists legally liable in Russia?

Through their association with RFE/RL, our journalists may also be subjected to being personally designated as "foreign agents", with all of the bureaucratic and legal burdens associated with the law’s application to organizations and accompanying fines, despite being of Russian nationality.

In fact, three of RFE/RL’s freelance contributors have already been added to the register of media “foreign agents,” and have been forced to set up a legal entity, provide extensive quarterly financial reporting to the government, and must label all of their work and electronic communications as being produced by a “foreign agent.” They continue to appeal their additions to the register in Russian courts, without success.

  • What kind of journalism can you do if your reporters are not on the ground?

We have a considerable network of freelancers in Russia, and we will continue to support and maximize their work in any way we can. For many years we have focused on digital work in Russia, and we will continue to use platforms such as Current Time TV. To support these efforts, we have been investing in digital security training and tools to ensure we are able to securely communicate with our associates.

We will also continue to leverage user-generated content to report on current events and provide live news coverage. There are enough people with access to smartphones and connectivity that we are confident in our ability to provide timely updates to Russian audiences.

  • Is RFE/RL a mouthpiece of the U.S. Government?

No. RFE/RL is a private, non-profit 501(c)3 corporation that is funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM). RFE/RL's editorial independence is protected by U.S. law.

US Government officials do not interfere in RFE/RL’s editorial decisions.

  • What is the history of RFE/RL’s journalism and presence in Russia?

RFE/RL has been broadcasting to Russia since 1953. Dmitry Volchek, a Russian national, became RF/ERL's first freelance correspondent in the country in 1988. In 1991, RFE/RL was one of the only Russian-language news organizations to stay on the air to cover the attempted military coup in August. RFE/RL's role in connecting former Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin with the Russian people during this turbulent period prompted Yeltsin to sign a decree accrediting the RFE/RL bureau in Moscow for their critical role in covering the August events, formally inviting RFE/RL to establish a permanent bureau in Russia.

RFE/RL has remained in Moscow for thirty years, sharing unbiased and uncensored news with the Russian people despite increasing pressure from the government. RFE/RL covers everything from political reporting and breaking news to regional, lifestyle, and culture-focused reporting. In 2002, President Vladimir Putin revoked Yeltsin's decree granting the right to establish a bureau. Over the next decade, RFE/RL lost nearly all of its broadcast affiliates as a result of government pressure, leading ultimately to the loss also of its AM radio frequency in Moscow in 2012.

For a more detailed account of RFE/RL's history in Russia and role in the 1991 coup, click here: https://pressroom.rferl.org/a/how-liberty-came-to-russia/30608386.html

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