BRUSSELS -- The European Union has criticized legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin that empowers Russia’s government to designate media outlets receiving funding from abroad as "foreign agents" and impose sanctions against them.
The new law was published on Russia's official legal information Internet portal on November 25.
Maja Kocijancic, the spokesperson of the European Commission for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said in a November 26 statement that the "legislation goes against Russia's human rights obligations and commitments."
Kocijancic called the law "a further threat to free and independent media and access to information" and "yet another attempt to shrink the space for independent voices in Russia."
The measure was passed by Russia's Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, on November 22 in a unanimous 154-0 vote, with one abstention.
It was unanimously approved in the third and final reading in the lower house, the State Duma, on November 15. Within hours, the Justice Ministry sent warnings to several Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) news services.
The letters did not specify what potential restrictions they could face, but lawmakers have said designated media could be subjected to detailed financial-reporting requirements and required to label published material as coming from a foreign agent.
RFE/RL was among several media outlets that Russian officials warned could be labeled a foreign agent, a list that also included the Voice of America (VOA), CNN, and Germany's international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle.
In response to news that Putin signed the law, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said, "We cannot speculate at this time on the effect of the new law, since no news organization has yet been specifically named as a 'foreign agent' and the restrictions to be imposed on such 'agents' have not been announced."
"We remain committed to continuing our journalistic work, in the interests of providing accurate and objective news to our Russian-speaking audiences," he added.
The international rights organization Amnesty International has said the legislation would deal a "serious blow" to media freedom in Russia, although Russian officials have said it would not apply to domestic media.
Russian officials have called the new legislation a "symmetrical response" to what they describe as U.S. pressure on Russian media. On November 13, the U.S. operating unit of Russian state-funded television channel RT -- a company called T&R Productions LLC -- registered in the United States under a decades-old law called the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The U.S. Justice Department required the RT affiliate to register in the wake of a January finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that RT and Russia's Sputnik news agency spread disinformation as part of a Russian-government effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
John Lansing, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, said in a statement on November 25 that "any characterization of such steps as reciprocity for U.S. actions severely distorts reality."
"Russian media, including RT and Sputnik, are free to operate in the United States and can be, and are, carried by U.S. cable television outlets and FM radio stations," Lansing added. "However, U.S international media, including VOA and RFE/RL, are banned from television and radio in Russia."
He also said that "our journalists on assignment are harassed by Russian authorities and face extensive restrictions on their work."
Visiting the Moscow bureau of RFE/RL and VOA on November 17, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman said that the Russian legislation was a "big concern" for the United States and that "the principles of free media in any free society and democracy are absolutely critical for strength and well-being."