U.S. Republican and Democratic lawmakers called for new sanctions against Moscow if the Kremlin moves to enforce stringent restrictions and punishing fines that threaten RFE/RL’s news operations in Russia.
The letter, dated January 22, also called on President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to bolster RFE/RL’s operations in Belarus, which has been roiled by months of anti-government protests following Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s declaration of reelection in August.
Opposition groups say that vote was rigged and many Western nations have refused to recognize Lukashenka’s declaration.
Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor announced this month it was imposing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines on RFE/RL’s operations in Russia, accusing it of failing to comply with new restrictions under the country’s “foreign agent” law.
Among other things, the law requires certain news organizations that receive foreign funding to label content within Russia as being produced by a “foreign agent.”
The law also puts RFE/RL journalists at risk for criminal prosecution.
An independent nonprofit corporation that receives funding from the U.S. Congress, RFE/RL has not complied with the order. The mounting fines could potentially force the company to shutter its presence within Russia.
Russian regulators have singled out RFE/RL, whose editorial independence is also enshrined in U.S. law, over other foreign news operations in Russia.
“If Moscow proceeds with these actions, then we are prepared to work with your administration in considering using existing” U.S. laws to punish Russia, said the letter, which was signed by Representatives Greg Meeks and Michael McCaul, the top Democrat and top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Three other lawmakers also signed.
Those laws include the Magnitsky Act, the Global Magnitsky Act, and the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act -- all of which have been used heavily over the past nine years to target Russian officials with visa bans and freezing assets.
The Biden administration has signaled that it plans to take a new approach in U.S. relations with Russia, extending a major arms-control treaty while also voicing support for opposition groups, including anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny.
However, Russian officials have already made several aggressive moves, including accusing Washington of being behind the massive anti-government protests that swept across Russia on January 23 in support of Navalny.
Navalny was jailed a week ago when he flew to Moscow after recuperating in Germany from a poisoning attack that he blames on Putin. The Kremlin has denied any involvement.
RFE/RL’s news operations “are a crucial tool to strengthen our allies’ democracies and prevent the democratic backsliding that opens the door for Russia, China, and other autocratic competitors to advance their own nefarious interests,” the letter said.
Since early in Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the Kremlin has steadily tightened the screws on independent media. The country is ranked 149th out of 180 places in the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders.
Following the August presidential election, Belarusians took to the streets, accusing Lukashenka and government authorities of falsifying the vote. The protests, unprecedented in their size, have continued on a near-daily basis, despite a government crackdown.
The election result has been rejected by many Western countries, who have called for a new vote.