A court in Moscow has upheld fines imposed by Russia's media-monitoring agency against RFE/RL's Russian-language services for alleged violations of the country's controversial "foreign agent" laws.
On April 7, the Tverskoi District Court upheld 5.5 million rubles ($70,700) in fines, rejecting RFE/RL's appeals against them.
In all, the Roskomnadzor state monitoring agency has filed 390 protocols against RFE/RL for failing to mark its materials distributed in Russia as the product of a Russian-government-designated "foreign agent." The court has so far upheld about 260 of the protocols with total fines approaching $1 million.
RFE/RL has not complied with the labeling requirements.
Roskomnadzor issued a statement saying RFE/RL must pay the fines within 60 days. If the company fails to pay, the agency warned it could "restrict access" to RFE/RL's websites in Russia.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said that the broadcaster was "being targeted by the Russian authorities because we continue to provide a growing audience in Russia with objective news and information at a moment when the Kremlin is trying to limit the Russian people’s access to information."
"We will not abandon our audience no matter how many illegitimate fines the Russian authorities impose on us. We will continue to fight these attacks on our journalistic independence through all possible means," he added.
RFE/RL continues to appeal the fines and has said it would do so at the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
One day earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Moscow had imposed "invasive labeling requirements and fines" in order to "drive RFE/RL out of Russia."
Russia's so-called "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.
In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL's Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time on the list.
Earlier this year, Russian courts began imposing large fines against RFE/RL for failing to mark its articles with a government-prescribed label as required by rules adopted in October 2020.
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.
RFE/RL has called the fines "a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation." Human Rights Watch has described the foreign agent legislation as "restrictive" and intended "to demonize independent groups."
The fines against RFE/RL come as the Russian government is moving to strengthen the so-called foreign agent laws.
On April 7, the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, passed in its third reading a law about the participation of designated "foreign agents" in elections. If the measure becomes law, individuals who were affiliated with a designated "foreign agent" organization or media outlet at any point in the previous two years would have to announce that fact on their campaign materials.
In addition, "foreign agent" NGOs and media outlets would be barred from campaigning for any candidate or party or advocating any position on referendums
On April 5, President Vladimir Putin signed into law additional restrictions on nongovernmental organizations that have been listed as "foreign agents."
Under the new law, the government has the right to conduct spot audits of such organizations whenever they receive a report that the organization has participated in an event involving foreign NGOs that have been designated "undesirable" in Russia.
The new law also obligates designated "foreign agent" organizations to present the program of all activities to the government in advance and gives the Justice Ministry the power to ban any activities entirely or partially in advance. Failure to comply with the new law could result in the liquidation of the listed NGO.
The changes come as Russia prepares for national elections to the State Duma, which must be held by September 19.
Aside from RFE/RL, the only other foreign media organizations to have been designated under the foreign agent law are VOA and a small, obscure Czech web portal.