The Council of Europe says it is concerned about Russia branding individuals as "foreign agents" after Moscow added five people to a registry that activists say is used as a way to clamp down on dissent.
The council, one of the continent's leading human rights organizations, said in a statement on December 29 that the move -- and the foreign agent law in general -- "stifles the development of civil society and freedom of expression."
The comment comes a day after Russia said it had placed five people -- three journalists who contribute to RFE/RL and two human rights activists -- on the Justice Ministry's registry of "foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent."
Previously, only foreign-funded, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and rights groups were placed on the registry, in keeping with Russia's passage of its controversial "foreign agents law" in 2012. The law was later expanded to include media outlets and independent journalists.
"The Justice Ministry is stating unambiguously that reporting the facts is a crime, and that it will stop at nothing to silence the voices that seek to inform, protect, and engage their compatriots, the people of Russia."-- Daisy Sindelar, RFE/RL vice president and editor in chief
Inclusion on the registry imposes additional restrictions, such as the obligation to provide regular financial reports on activities and in the way publications are labeled.
"Labeling individuals, including journalists, researchers, and human rights defenders, as foreign agents stigmatizes these persons and risks further undermining pluralism and democracy in the Russian Federation,” the Council of Europe added in a statement.
The three listed individuals affiliated with RFE/RL are Lyudmila Savitskaya and Sergei Markelov, freelance correspondents for the North Desk (Sever.Realii) of RFE/RL's Russian Service; and Denis Kamalyagin, editor in chief of the online news site Pskov Province and a contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service.
Prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov was also named to the registry, as was activist and Red Cross worker Darya Apakhonchich.
On December 29, the ministry expanded the list again, adding the Nasiliu.net human rights center, which deals with domestic violence cases.
The additions bring the total number of individuals or entities listed to 18, the majority of them affiliated with RFE/RL.
According to Russia's controversial "foreign agents law," any individual who distributes materials of a publication or a legal entity recognized as a foreign agent, participates in its creation, and receives foreign funding from abroad can be recognized as a "foreign media agent."
The Justice Ministry did not explain on what grounds it included the recent additions of the five individuals and one entity to the registry.
Russian officials have previously said that amending the "foreign agents law" to include mass media in 2017 was a "symmetrical response" to the U.S. requirement that Russia's state-funded channel RT register under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
U.S. officials have said the action is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws differ and that Russia uses its "foreign agent" legislation to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based rights group, called the law "devastating" for local NGOs, saying more than a dozen had been forced to close their doors.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a whole was listed in the original registry in December 2017, along with several of RFE/RL's regional news sites: the Crimea Desk of RFE/RL Ukrainian Service; the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service; RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service; Idel.Realii of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service; Kavkaz Realii; RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service; and Factograph, a former special project by RFE/RL's Russian Service.
Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, was also named in the original list, as was Voice of America.
In November 2019, the list was expanded to include Sever.Realii. In February 2020, the Russian Justice Ministry added RFE/RL's corporate entity in Russia.
RFE/RL Vice President and Editor in Chief Daisy Sindelar said in response to the December 28 move that it was "reprehensible" that professional journalists were among the first individuals singled out by Russia as "foreign agents."
With the December 28 action, "the Justice Ministry is stating unambiguously that reporting the facts is a crime, and that it will stop at nothing to silence the voices that seek to inform, protect, and engage their compatriots, the people of Russia," she added.
The only non-U.S. entity named to the list is the Czech news agency Medium Orient.
On December 23, the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, gave its final approval to a bill that would allow individuals and public entities to be recognized as foreign agents if they are considered to be engaged in political activities "in the interests of a foreign state."
A separate bill passed the same day introduces of penalties of up to five years in prison against individuals identified as "foreign agents" if they do not register as such or fail to report on their activities.
Under the proposed legislation, which still has to be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, grounds for being recognized as a "foreign agent" could be holding rallies or political debates, providing opinions on state policies, actions promoting a certain outcome in an election or referendum, or participation as an electoral observer or in political parties if they are done in the interest of a foreign entity.