In Russia

RT.com, Nov 17, 2017  (with additional reports further below)

The Russian State Duma has passed in a the third and final reading on November 15 a bill requiring mass-media outlets operating in the country and funded from abroad to register as foreign agents.

Russia’s State Duma votes on law regulating media on Nov 15, 2017 (Vladimir Fedorrenko, Sputnik)

The motion was prepared by State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin and the heads of all four parliamentary caucuses. It was drafted as a suite of amendments to the bill allowing for websites of banned or extremist organizations to be blocked without requiring approval from the courts.

The text of the amendment defines affected mass-media outlets as legal entities that are “registered in a foreign nation, or a foreign structure that operates without registering as a company, engaged in spreading printed, audio, audio-visual or any other content prepared for an unlimited group of people.”

It states that such entities can be “recognized as foreign mass media executing the functions of a foreign agent if they receive monetary funds or other property from foreign states, government agencies, foreign-based and international organizations, foreign citizens and persons without citizenship or any other persons acting on behalf of foreign citizens and organizations,” according to TASS [see TASS report below].

The bill does not mention any particular companies or countries. It specifies that the final decision in classifying mass media outlets as foreign agents should be made by the Justice Ministry. The ministry is also tasked with developing instructions regarding the obligatory marking of products released by mass-media outlets registered as foreign agents, and deciding whether it is necessary to maintain a separate register of such organizations.

Media outlets that refuse to register as foreign agents would face sanctions similar to those applied to NGOs and other groups, which are currently regulated by the original foreign-agents law.

One of the key sponsors of the new bill, Deputy Duma Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia), called the motion “a forced decision that would not affect the freedom of speech in any way.”

“We are talking about an opportunity for the executive-power bodies to take mirror measures against countries that are infringing upon Russian journalists’ freedom of action and expression,” RIA Novosti quoted Tolstoy as saying.

Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, approved of the newly passed bill on Wednesday. “Any attempts to attack the freedom of Russian mass media abroad are not and will not be left without resolute denunciation and a mirror reaction from Moscow. The approved bill will make it possible to express our reaction in due time,” he said.

Russian lawmakers began to draft the legislative measures after the U.S. Department of Justice ordered RT America to register as a foreign agent before November 13, threatening to freeze the company’s assets and arrest its head if it did not comply. On November 10, RT America (officially registered as T & R Productions LLC) filed as a foreign agent with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The original Russian Foreign Agents Law, introduced in late 2012, obliges all NGOs that receive funding from abroad and are engaged in political activities to register as foreign agents or risk substantial fines. In November 2014, the law was expanded by a bill making it illegal for Russian political parties to receive sponsorship from, or enter into any business deals with, NGOs that have “foreign-agent” status.

Many rights groups in Russia and abroad protested against the move, saying it would jeopardize their existence, and complained about ‘loose definitions’ in the original document. In mid-2016, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law that defined the term “political activity of non-governmental organizations” and exempted charity groups receiving funding from abroad from having to register as foreign agents.

Related:
Registering the cable channel RT as a foreign agent is a threat to press freedom, by Katrina vanden Heuvel, published in The Nation, Nov 14, 2017


Russian lawmakers approve law on media ‘foreign agents’

By Denis Pinchuk and Christian Lowe, Reuters, Wednesday, Nov 15, 2017

MOSCOW – Russia’s lower house of parliament on Wednesday approved a bill that would give Moscow the power to force foreign media to brand the news they provide to Russians as the work of “foreign agents” and also to disclose where they get their funding.

The legislation needs approval from the upper house and President Vladimir Putin before it becomes law. It is part of the fallout from allegations that the Kremlin interfered in the U.S. presidential election last year in favor of Donald Trump.

U.S. intelligence officials accuse the Kremlin of using Russian media organizations it finances to influence U.S. voters, and this week Washington required Russian state broadcaster RT to register a U.S.-based affiliate company as a “foreign agent”.

The Kremlin denies meddling in the election and has said the restrictions on Russian broadcasters in the United States are an attack on free speech. It has vowed to retaliate by imposing restrictions on some foreign media operating in Russia.

In the 450-seat State Duma, 414 lawmakers voted on Wednesday for the bill on a third and final reading, with none against, Russian news agencies reported. [The actual vote was 409 deputies in favour.]

If the upper chamber and Putin also back the draft, it will become law but implementation of its provisions would be left to the discretion of the Russian government.

Putin has been fiercely critical of U.S. measures toward Russian media, but he has not given wholehearted support to the draft legislation, saying at the weekend it “might be a little too harsh”.

Branded as ‘foreign agents’

The draft legislation states that Russian authorities can designate foreign media as “foreign agents”, making them subject to the same requirements that are applied to foreign-funded non-governmental organizations under a 2012 law.

That law, heavily criticized by Western governments, was an attempt by Moscow to insulate itself from a wave of popular revolutions in eastern Europe and the Middle East [sic]. Moscow said they were fomented by Western governments using civil society groups as proxies.

Under the 2012 law, “foreign agents” have to include in any information they publish or broadcast to Russian audiences a mention of their “foreign agent” designation. They also have to apply for inclusion in a government register, submit regular reports on their sources of funding, on their objectives, on how they spend their money, and who their managers are.

They can be subject to spot checks by the authorities to make sure they comply with the rules, according to the 2012 law.


Kremlin says Moscow’s foreign agent law bites back at U.S. crackdown on Russian media

TASS Russian news agency, Nov 15, 2017

MOSCOW – The law designating media outlets as foreign agents, passed by the State Duma on November 15, will allow Russia’s authorities to immediately and symmetrically respond to the encroachment on the freedom of Russian media abroad, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “Any encroachment on the freedom of Russian media abroad is not and won’t be left without a strong condemnation and a tit-for-tat response of Moscow,” Peskov said, adding that the law will enable Russia to give a timely response.

Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, passed in the third and final reading a law on designating media outlets as foreign agents if they receive funding from abroad. The law will enter into force after it is endorsed by the upper house, the Federation Council, and is signed by the president.

After acquiring this status, these media outlets will be subject to the restrictions and responsibilities which are currently envisaged for non-governmental organizations labeled as foreign agents. They will also face a similar responsibility for such NGOs for breaching this legislation.

This measure was a response to the demand of the U.S. Department of Justice to RT America, a U.S. branch of the Russian television company, to register as a foreign agent.


Russia’s State Duma passes amendments to foreign agent media law

TASS Russian news agency, Nov 15, 2017

MOSCOW – Russia’s State Duma (lower house of parliament) voted at its meeting on November 15 to pass amendments allowing the designation of media outlets as foreign agents if they are funded from abroad. After acquiring this status, these media outlets will be subject to the restrictions and responsibilities which are currently envisaged [applied] for non-governmental organizations designated as foreign agents. They will face similar responsibility to such NGOs for breach of legislation.

A total of 409 lawmakers out of 450 voted for the amendments. No one voted against them or abstained.

The amendment was introduced in the second reading of a bill which initially dealt with a related issue, specifically, the possibility of the pre-judicial blocking of websites of organizations outlawed in Russia. The amendment is a response to the demand by the U.S. Department of Justice that the U.S. branch of Russia’s RT television channel, RT America, should register as a foreign agent by November 13.

Websites to be blocked

Amendments have been introduced into the law on information, information technologies and information security, which provides Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor with the possibility to immediately block websites at the request of the Prosecutor General’s Office. In particular, the amendments say that a website may be blocked in cases where it contains information “published or disseminated by a foreign or international non-governmental organization declared undesirable in Russia.”

As of now, as many as 11 foreign and international non-profit organizations have been declared undesirable in Russia. However, none of their websites has been blocked so far.

“Meanwhile, such websites are used to disseminate information aimed at discrediting Russia’s domestic and foreign policy, shaping a negative public opinion and destabilizing the situation in the country,” the amendments’ authors say. They believe that the situation stems from “the difficulties hindering the current procedure for blocking websites used by foreign and international non-governmental organizations declared undesirable on Russia’s territory.”

During the second reading of the bill, another significant amendment was introduced, which says that owners of news aggregators may not be held responsible for disseminating information “in case the information is a verbatim reproduction of news published on official websites of state agencies.”

Blocking procedure

Before blocking a website, law enforcement agencies must study its contents and prepare a document “containing information about the website and the news that it disseminates, as well as providing evidence of unlimited public access to undesirable organizations’ websites.” These documents must be forwarded to the Prosecutor General’s Office. It would request a court to declare the information prohibited for dissemination in Russia. After a positive court decision, Roskomnadzor would order Russian internet provider companies to limit user access to certain websites.

At the same time, website owners would have an opportunity to file an appeal against the court’s ruling within three months from its issuance. The blocking procedure may take up to one year.

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