PRAGUE -- RFE/RL says it will appeal to the Supreme Court of Russia to throw out a 100,000 ruble ($1,440) fine imposed in July under the country’s controversial "foreign-agent" law.
The decision comes after a December 13 ruling by the Moscow City Court to reject RFE/RL's appeal following an August 21 district court decision to keep the fine in place.
The fine was imposed over what the courts ruled was RFE/RL’s failure to comply with obligations to report on its operations in Russia following the designation of it and several of its divisions as “foreign agents” by the Justice Ministry in December 2017.
The designation was based on a law signed by President Vladimir Putin in November 2017 allowing the government to apply the label to media outlets that receive funding from abroad, subjecting them to the same requirements as nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding and are deemed to engage in political activity face under the initial 2012 “foreign-agent” law.
RFE/RL has paid the fine but contends that it was unable to fulfill the reporting requirement by the April 15 deadline because the Justice Ministry, despite repeated requests, failed to provide forms and set out the details of the reporting procedure in a timely manner.
Official reporting instructions for non-Russian legal entities like RFE/RL were published only on April 16.
The expansion of the already much-criticized “foreign-agent” legislation to include media outlets drew sharp criticism from Western governments and rights activists who say the Kremlin uses it to suppress information.
"The ruling by the Moscow City Court is the latest effort by Russian authorities to hamstring our company and particularly the work of our journalists in Russia," said RFE/RL acting President Daisy Sindelar.
"Our job is to provide balanced, objective reporting about events in Russia and worldwide," Sindelar added. "Any suggestion that our journalists are agents of any government is false."
Russian officials have said that expansion of the “foreign-agent” law to media outlets was a “symmetrical response" after Kremlin-supported satellite TV network RT was required to register its U.S. operating unit under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. RT has been accused by U.S. intelligence authorities of spreading propaganda.
U.S. officials argue that the U.S. and Russian laws differ substantially and that Russia uses its foreign-agent legislation to silence dissent and discourage a free exchange of ideas.
RFE/RL is a private, nonprofit organization funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress and overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which supervises civilian government broadcasting and media operations.
U.S law guarantees the editorial independence of RFE/RL by establishing an information firewall between the organization and the U.S. government.
Along with RFE/RL, which includes its flagship Russian-language service Radio Svoboda, Russian authorities slapped the “foreign-agent” label on Voice of America (VOA), which is also overseen by the USAGM, as well as Current Time TV -- a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA – and several other branches of RFE/RL whose primary audiences are in Russia or speak Russian.