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February 18, 2021 - Updated on February 22, 2021

New changes to Russia’s “foreign agents” law aim to intimidate journalists

Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns new, “Kafkaesque” amendments to Russia’s so-called “foreign agents” law. These nonsensical and incomprehensible additions, which include heavier fines, aim to intimidate journalists and get them to censor themselves, RSF says.

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Passed on 16 February by the Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower house, the amendments are so impenetrable that even the legal specialists at Agora, a Russian human rights NGO run by lawyers, are baffled.

                  

Since 1 January, journalists have been required by this law to check whether any person or organization quoted in an article is on the justice ministry’s “foreign agents” list before publishing. If they are, they must mention this in the article. And if they or their media is on the list, they must also mention this in every article. Twelve media outlets and three journalists are already on the list, but a new, longer list is due to be released soon.

 

Under the new amendments, quoting any person or organization regarded as a “foreign agent” in a media story, in any communication with the authorities, or on the Internet without mentioning their “foreign agent” status is punishable by heavier fines than those established in the previous modification of this law in late December.

 

“Aside from the systematic stigmatization of certain persons and organizations, including journalists and media outlets, these amendments are utterly Kafkaesque,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “This law is so vague and its scope is so broad that, in the absence of exhaustive verification of its application, the authorities will be able to choose their targets and impose insane fines on whomever they see fit. It will further obstruct journalists’ work and seeks to intimidate them into censoring themselves.”

 

Since 1 January, the “foreign agent” label is applicable to journalists working for media regarded as “foreign agents.” Radio Svoboda, the Russian service of US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was fined 11 million roubles (112,000 euros) on 10 February for failing to register as a “foreign agent” and failing to refer to itself as such in its articles.

 

Russia is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.