MOSCOW -- Court bailiffs have again come to the offices of RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau and Current Time -- photographing computers and other editorial equipment they’ve threatened to seize over unpaid fines imposed under Russia’s controversial “foreign agents” law.
The move on May 25 came less than two weeks after Russia’s Federal Court Bailiffs Service initiated enforcement proceedings against RFE/RL’s Russian branch over a portion of unpaid fines amounting to 5 million rubles, or about $68,000.
The total amount of fines RFE/RL already faces under Russian court orders is more than 80 million rubles -- just over $1 million.
Altogether, Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor has accused RFE/RL of some 520 violations of labeling rules under the “foreign agents” law.
Once all are adjudicated by Russian courts, they are expected to result in fines of $2.4 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.”
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has called on the Russian government "to stop targeting journalists and blocking the Russian people's access to information."
Earlier this month, RFE/RL representatives filed a complaint against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights.
The "foreign agents" law is increasingly being used against Russian-language media outlets in the country, including RFE/RL. The European Union has called on Moscow to repeal the law.
Peter Stano, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, describes the legislation as “stifling.” Stano says Russia should respect its “international obligations on freedom of association, assembly, and expression.”
“Such actions have the clear intention to hamper RFE/RL’s operations in Russia as part of a wider trend to stifle independent media and critical voices in the country,” Stano says.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Russia to unfreeze the bank accounts used by RFE/RL and to stop labeling media outlets as "foreign agents."
Gulnoza Said, CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, says news outlets are being fined and harassed for “alleged violations” of what she calls “an unjust piece of legislation that should be repealed.”
The legislation -- repeatedly modified since it was adopted in 2012 -- is one of several Kremlin-backed measures aimed at restricting foreign-funded activities in Russia.
It requires foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations to be registered and identify themselves as “foreign agents” if they are deemed by Russian authorities to be engaged in political activity.
Such organizations also must submit to audits by Russian authorities.
Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media, including RFE/RL’s Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
It has been further expanded to include individual journalists.
A parallel measure known as the “undesirable organizations” law has forced the closure of nongovernmental civil society groups in Russia, mainly from Europe and the United States.