MOSCOW -- The U.S. ambassador to Russia said during a visit to the the Moscow bureau of RFE/RL and Voice of America (VOA) that new Russian legislation targeting foreign media is a "big concern" to the United States.
U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman said during his November 17 visit -- viewed as a gesture of support for RFE/RL and VOA -- that "I'm here because we as Americans believe that freedom of the press [and] transparency are...an absolutely critical ingredient to a successful and strong democratic system.
"We just think the principles of free media in any free society and democracy are absolutely critical for strength and well-being," Huntsman said. "Freedom of speech is a part of that. That's why we in the embassy care about the issue. That's why we're going to follow the work that is going on in the Duma and the legislation that is being drafted very, very carefully. Because we're concerned about it."
Russia's State Duma on November 15 passed legislation that would allow for the designation of foreign media organizations in the country as “foreign agents” and require them to declare full details about their funding, finances, and staffing. It still requires an upper-house vote and the signature of President Vladimir Putin.
Huntsman said that despite Moscow's characterization of the legislation as a response to actions against the state-controlled RT network in the United States, the Russia legislation "isn't reciprocal at all."
Huntsman said a move by Washington to require RT to release financial information about its operations in the United States was meant to ensure "transparency."
"That's far different from designating somebody a foreign agent and effectively making it virtually impossible for them to operate," he said. "It isn't similar at all to what we are doing under FARA -- it's a reach beyond."
In Moscow, the U.S. Embassy cautioned Russia against using the legislation as a tool to limit media freedom.
Embassy spokeswoman Maria Olson said on November 16 that Washington is watching "carefully to see whether it is passed and how it is implemented."
Russian legislators characterize the legislation as a tit-for-tat response to Washington's recent requirement that RT's American contractor register and disclose financial information under a long-standing U.S. law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Olson said the U.S. law is aimed only at making information public about the foreign sponsorship behind organizations seeking to influence U.S. political debate and does not otherwise restrict what registrants say or do.
"As we have told our Russian interlocutors, FARA promotes transparency without restricting or limiting expression," Olson said.
"FARA does not limit publishing of materials. It only requires registration, labeling, and record-keeping. Some governments have asserted FARA is being used as a tool to restrict political freedom. These assertions are completely erroneous," she said.
Media freedom and human rights groups have criticized both the Russian legislation and the U.S. requirement for RT to register under FARA.
Russia's Justice Ministry has published a list on its website confirming that its first targets under the law may be nine media outlets connected with RFE/RL and VOA.
The U.S.-funded outlets previously were warned by the ministry that they might be affected by the legislation.
Coming just two days after RT's U.S. contractor registered as a "foreign agent," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it is "alarmed by Russia's quid pro quo response" to Washington.
“We condemn this eye-for-an-eye response, as media freedom will be its only victim," said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
"It is highly regrettable that the U.S. authorities started this. Combating propaganda is one of our era’s imperatives, but it is not the job of governments to define what is legitimate journalism,” he said.
The group said the Russian legislation would apply the same "draconian provisions" Russia has imposed on foreign nonprofit groups since 2012 on foreign media, including putting the "ignominious foreign-agent label" on everything they publish or broadcast.
But the media law is vaguer than the 2012 law in giving Russian authorities a weapon they potentially could use against media out of favor with the Kremlin, it said.
“The law’s extremely vague provisions open the way to selective, arbitrary, and highly political application and, at a time of unprecedented pressure on the media, are liable to make it even harder for Russian citizens to get access to freely reported news,” Bihr said.
"One can only speculate as to its first targets, which could include such leading public broadcasters as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the BBC, and Deutsche Welle. Russian exile media may also be targeted," he said.
The Russian legislation is "a full-throttle attack on media freedom," Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said.
"This legislation is tailor-made to be selectively and politically enforced, and to silence voices they do not want Russian people to hear," Williamson said.
On November 15, shortly after the Duma approved the legislation, Russia's Justice Ministry sent warning letters to RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Tatar-Bashkir Service, as well as to its Idel.realii and Sibir.realii, Russian-language websites that focus on news from Russia’s central Volga region and Siberia.
Also receiving warnings were Current Time TV, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, and RFE/RL's Krym.Realii website, which focuses on news from the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia occupied and seized in 2014.
The letters did not make any specific threats, except to note that the news operations might face restrictions under the new law.
In a November 15 statement, RFE/RL said the "situation regarding Russian media in the U.S. and U.S. media in Russia remains vastly unequal."
"RT and Sputnik distribute freely in the U.S., whereas RFE/RL has lost its broadcast affiliates in Russia due to administrative pressures, and has no access to cable," it said. "RFE/RL reporters are subject to harassment and even physical attack in Russia."
"RFE/RL's job is to provide accurate and objective journalism to our Russian-speaking audiences worldwide, including in Russia," RFE/RL's statement said. "We look forward to continuing our work."