Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law bills that beef up fines for violating a controversial law on "foreign agents" as well as other legislation relating to protests, such as the financing of rallies and disobedience of law enforcement, in the wake of unsanctioned protests in support of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
According to the laws, signed by Putin on February 24, releasing information about so-called "foreign agents" and their materials without also indicating their status could lead to fines of up to 2,500 rubles ($34) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,720) for entities. The law applies regardless of whether the "foreign agent" in question is a mass media outlet or an individual.
The other laws signed by Putin on February 24 set fines for individuals found guilty of illegally financing a rally at up to 15,000 rubles ($200), while officials and organizations for such actions will be ordered to pay up to 30,000 rubles ($400) and 100,000 rubles ($1,345), respectively.
Putin also signed a law that significantly increases fines for disobedience of police and security forces. Police detained more than 11,000 people at nationwide protests over the past month in support of Navalny, according to OVD-Info, a protest monitoring group.
Russia’s "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.
Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media, including RFE/RL’s Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, as well as Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its “foreign agents” list and to impose restrictions on them.
RFE/RL will not be deterred from our independent reporting for our Russian audience."-- RFE/RL President Jamie Fly
The Russian state media monitor Roskomnadzor last year adopted rules requiring listed media to mark all written materials with a lengthy notice in large text, all radio materials with an audio statement, and all video materials with a 15-second text declaration.
The agency has prepared hundreds of complaints against RFE/RL’s news websites. When they go through the court system, the total fines levied could reach nearly $1 million.
RFE/RL has called the fines “a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation,” while the U.S. State Department has described them as “intolerable.” Human Rights Watch has described the foreign agent legislation as “restrictive” and intended “to demonize independent groups.”
"RFE/RL will not be deterred from our independent reporting for our Russian audience," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement on February 24.
“The Kremlin is targeting RFE/RL because of the audience response to our work and interest in our coverage of recent political events in Russia. The Russian people will be the ultimate victims of laws like this that use intimidation tactics to try to silence voices and reduce media diversity,” Fly added.
Since early in Putin’s presidency, the Kremlin has steadily tightened the screws on independent media. The country is ranked 149th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders.
Navalny, 44, was flown to Germany last August after collapsing in Siberia following what he said was an attempt by Putin to kill him with a military-grade nerve agent. That assertion has been backed by many Western countries, but the Kremlin has steadfastly denied any involvement in the incident.
Upon his return to Moscow in January, Navalny was detained immediately and subsequently sentenced to jail on February 2 for parole violations while being treated abroad for the poison attack.
The court changed his 3 1/2 -year suspended sentence to a prison term. He is set to spend just over 2 1/2 years behind bars because of time already served in detention.
Russia has ignored a demand by the European Court of Human Rights to release Navalny, and European Union foreign ministers agreed earlier this week to impose sanctions on four senior Russian officials close to Putin in a mainly symbolic response to Navalny's jailing.
The EU is expected to formally approve the agreement in early March.