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Russian Document Suggests All Foreign Media Could Be Labeled 'Agents'

An aerial shot of the Prague headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which has been designated as a "foreign agent" by Russia's Justice Ministry. (file photo)
An aerial shot of the Prague headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which has been designated as a "foreign agent" by Russia's Justice Ministry. (file photo)

A draft order released by the Russian Justice Ministry suggests that the government may decide to label all media outlets receiving foreign funding as "foreign agents."

The document posted on the Internet on December 21 sets out proposed regulations for the implementation of a law signed by President Vladimir Putin in November that empowered the ministry to designate foreign media outlets as foreign agents.

The Justice Ministry declared Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Voice of America (VOA), and seven affiliated news services "foreign agents" on December 5, but has not pinned the designation on any other media outlets.

The draft order says that "a foreign media outlet is considered to be carrying out the function of a foreign agent" if it receives money or property from foreign states, organizations, or citizens, or from foreign-funded Russian entities.

The wording suggested that if the document is approved and issued, all foreign media outlets would be considered foreign agents.

The document said that designated media outlets must register as foreign agents or be registered by the Justice Department, and that they could only be removed from the list at the request of the Prosecutor-General's Office.

'Symmetrical Response'

Under the order, media registered as foreign agents would be obliged to label their output as coming from a foreign agent, conduct annual audits, and submit quarterly reports on their finances as well as reports on their operations and staff every six months.

Russian officials have said the law enabling foreign media outlets to be labeled foreign agents is a "symmetrical response" after state-funded Russian channel RT -- which U.S. authorities accuse of spreading propaganda -- was required to register its U.S. operating unit under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

U.S. officials say the action is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws are different and that Russia uses its "foreign-agent" legislation, including a separate law that applies to NGOs and civic groups, to silence dissent and discourage a free exchange of ideas.

In a November 15 statement, RFE/RL said there was no symmetry in Russia's actions. It said that while RT and state-funded news outlet Sputnik distributed freely in the United States, RFE/RL "has lost its broadcast affiliates in Russia due to administrative pressures" and has no access to cable, and that "RFE/RL reporters are subject to harassment and even physical attack in Russia."

The European Union has called the Russian legislation a "threat to free and independent media and access to information." Human Rights Watch has condemned it as a "full-throttle attack on media freedom" and said it was "tailor-made to be selectively and politically enforced, and to silence voices they do not want Russian people to hear."

RFE/RL and VOA are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. agency that supervises civilian government broadcasting and media operations. VOA is a federal entity, while RFE/RL is a private, nonprofit organization funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress

With reporting by Interfax and Reuters