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Russian Watchdog Takes First Step Toward Punishing RFE/RL Under 'Foreign Agents' Law


The main headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague

Russia's telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor has drawn up its first eight administrative protocols -- all against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- for violating the country's controversial foreign agents law.

MOSCOW -- Russia's telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor has drawn up its first eight administrative protocols -- all against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- for violating the country's controversial foreign agents law.

Roskomnadzor said in a statement on its website on January 12 that the offenses are "for noncompliance by the media performing the functions of a foreign agent with the requirements of the law on labeling information disseminated by them."

The protocols target four of RFE/RL's Russian-language projects -- its main service for Russia, Radio Liberty; the Current Time TV and digital network; and Siberia.Reality and Idel.Reality, two regional sites delivering local news and information to audiences in Siberia and the Volga-Urals.

"The drawn-up protocols will be sent to the magistrate's court within three working days to make decisions on the imposition of administrative fines," Roskomnadzor said.

RFE/RL President Ted Lipien called the move "a dramatic escalation" and reaffirmed the broadcaster's determination to fulfill its mission toward its audiences in Russia and elsewhere.

"Internet regulator Roskomnadzor’s action is a dramatic escalation by the Russian government in its efforts to keep the Russian people from accessing the uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate offered by Radio Svoboda (Liberty) and our other Russia-focused reporting services," Lipien said.

"RFE/RL will not abandon our audiences or our mission, in Russia or anywhere else in our coverage area," he said.

The "foreign agent" law, originally passed in 2012, requires designated organizations to report their activities and face financial audits. Amendments to the law in December 2020 oblige the media to note the designation whenever they mention these individuals or groups.

The new law also says that individuals, including foreign journalists, involved in Russia's political developments or collecting materials and data related to Russia's defense or national-security issues must be included on the list of foreign agents.

Critics say the law has been arbitrarily applied to target Russian civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and political activists, including outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Amnesty International recently slammed the legislation, saying it would "drastically limit and damage the work not only of civil society organizations that receive funds from outside Russia but many other groups as well."

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a whole was listed in the original registry in December 2017, along with several of RFE/RL's regional news sites: the Crimea Desk of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service; the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service; Kavkaz Realii of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service; Idel.Realii of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service; and Factograph, a special project by RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, was also named in the original list, as was Voice of America.

In November 2019, the list was expanded to include Sever.Realii. In February 2020, the Russian Justice Ministry added RFE/RL's corporate entity in Russia.

Moscow began adding individuals to the list in December 2020, including three journalists who contribute to RFE/RL: Lyudmila Savitskaya and Sergei Markelov, freelance correspondents for the North Desk (Sever.Realii) of RFE/RL's Russian Service; and Denis Kamalyagin, editor in chief of the online news site Pskov Province and a contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Russian officials have said that amending the "foreign agents law" to include mass media in 2017 was a "symmetrical response" to the U.S. requirement that Russia's state-funded channel RT register under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

U.S. officials have said the action is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws differ and that Russia uses its "foreign agent" legislation to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas.

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