Russian lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill that would enable the government to brand some individual journalists and bloggers -- not only media outlets -- as foreign agents.
The bill, passed in the first of three readings in the State Duma on January 12, allows the Justice Ministry to designate people who are "performing the function of a media outlet" as foreign agents.
It follows a law signed by President Vladimir Putin in November that empowered the ministry to designate media outlets that are based or funded from outside Russia as "foreign agents."
The new bill has prompted concerns that Moscow could use the foreign agent label against foreign correspondents working in Russia in addition to media outlets themselves.
Russia says its legislation, which has been criticized by Western governments and media rights groups, is a response to what it claims is pressure on Russian media outlets in the United States. Washington denies it has pressured Russian media outlets.
The new bill, which appears likely to be approved by both houses of parliament and signed by Putin without major changes, sets out some of the rules governing media outlets or individuals designated as foreign agents.
It would require those designated as foreign agents to label their output as coming from a foreign agent, said Pyotr Tolstoi, a deputy Duma speaker from the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party.
This requirement "applies to all information sources, from television channels and print media to social media users of medical or cooking websites," Tolstoi said.
Another lawmaker, Leonid Levin, said that when it comes to individuals, the foreign agent label would only be applied to those who receive funding "directly or indirectly" from "state sources in countries where there are restrictions on the work of Russian media."
The bill would also require media outlets designated as foreign agents to set up Russian legal entities if they have not already done so.
Relations between Russia and the United States are severely strained by tension over issues including Russia's interference in Ukraine and its alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
The Russian Justice Ministry declared Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and seven affiliated news services foreign agents on December 5, but has not pinned the designation on any other media outlets.
With reporting by AP, Interfax, TASS, and RT