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RFE/RL’s Case Challenging Russia’s 'Foreign Agent' Laws Given 'Priority' By European Court of Human Rights

Inside the courtroom of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France (Feb 7, 2019).
Inside the courtroom of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France (Feb 7, 2019).

WASHINGTON - The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has accepted on a priority basis the legal case that the Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and its general director, Andrey Shary brought to it on May 19, and begun the process of considering the case. The case has now also been formally communicated to the government of Russia.

The ECHR’s decision to grant “priority” status – which it reserves for the most important, serious, and urgent cases – within a month of its filing means that the case will likely proceed more quickly than ordinary cases. The Russian government now has until October 5 to submit its response in the case to the court.

In their case, RFE/RL and Mr. Shary challenge Russia’s “foreign agent” laws, which have resulted in fines worth millions of dollars being imposed on them since January 2021. The law mandates that RFE/RL label itself a “foreign agent,” a term that in Russian connotes that RFE/RL is an enemy of the state, on all of its media content in the country or face severe financial (and potentially criminal) punishment. They argue that Russia’s actions violate the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In addition, they argue that, left unchecked, Russia’s campaign of imposing such severe punishments on RFE/RL over its stand on labeling its content will have a profound chilling effect on what is left of the country’s independent media. In recent weeks, Russia has already added independent media outlets such as the Latvia-based Meduza, Moscow-based First Anticorruption Media (PASMI), and Netherlands-based to its list of “foreign agents,” forcing VTimes to close on June 12.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said, “The clear intent of the Kremlin’s campaign against RFE/RL and other independent media in Russia is to force these outlets to either abandon freedom of speech and journalistic integrity, or to abandon the profession. Given the imminent risk of irreparable harm to RFE/RL’s operations in Russia and the importance of the issue of information choice for the Russian people, we welcome the fact that the European Court of Human Rights has given the case priority.”

Since January, Russian regulators have issued hundreds of administrative cases against RFE/RL and Mr. Shary in the Russian courts, carrying fines that may eventually total $3,450,000 (RUB 248.85m). Russian court bailiffs visited RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau twice to notify the organization about enforcement proceedings for the fines arising from RFE/RL’s refusal to label its content. RFE/RL’s Russian bank accounts have also been frozen by court order. RFE/RL has appealed every one of the hundreds of cases, but not a single court has upheld RFE/RL’s legal challenges or decreased the levels of fines imposed by Roskomnadzor.

Since 2017, when Russia expanded its controversial “foreign agent” laws to include media outlets, nine of RFE/RL’s news outlets have been designated “foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice. The law on “foreign agents” has been condemned by EU High Commissioner Josep Borrell, the European Parliament, the U.S. Department of State, and other international bodies as an infringement of fundamental freedoms.

RFE/RL is represented in the European Court of Human Rights by barristers Can Yeginsu and Ian McDonald of 4 New Square Chambers, instructed by the international law firm, Covington & Burling LLP.

About RFE/RL
RFE/RL relies on its networks of local reporters to provide accurate news and information to more than 41 million people every week in 27 languages and 23 countries where media freedom is restricted, or where a professional press has not fully developed. Its videos were viewed 6.5 billion times on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram/IGTV in FY2020. RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

Martins Zvaners in Washington (, +1.202.457.6948)
Jana Hokuvova in Prague (, +420.221.122.072)