NGO Lawyers' Club: The new foreign-agent media law is an attempt by the authorities to stop the spread of information it considers undesirable

posted 4 Dec 2017, 06:39 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Dec 2017, 06:43 ]

15 November 2017 


On 15 November 2017, the State Duma passed a bill in its second and third readings that will allow foreign media to be equated with “foreign agent” NGOs. The following commentary is from the NGO Lawyers’ Club

The Lawyers’ Club believes that the passing of this law attests to the state’s repressive pressure on the freedom of the media and will permit it to introduce censorship. The Club is resolutely opposed to the passing of this law.

“Amendments will not be made to the law, which is today being sent for approval to the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, and then to the Russian president for signature,” the director of the Lawyers’ Club, Maria Kanevskaya, is convinced. “The law will then come into effect, and only days remain before that happens.”

“A literal reading of the law shows that it will apply not only to foreign media but also to any legal entities registered outside Russia, and to any foreign organizations that have not been constituted as legal entities.”

“The main qualification is, one, that they are disseminating information to an undefined group of individuals and, two, they are being funded from foreign sources,” says Max Olenichev, head of the Lawyers’ Club legal service. “It is not required that they engage in political activities. The State has long considered the dissemination of appeals or the voicing of opinions to be political.”

The law introduces a new term, “foreign media”. In the main law that regulates the activities of the media there is a reference to “mass media from abroad” (see article 55 of the Russian Federation Law of 27 December 1991, No. 2124-1 “On the mass media”).

“This leads to an uncertainty about what the State will consider to be foreign media. The term has been introduced, but it is not defined by any law. Any organization, therefore, can be recognized as such—not necessarily the media. At least, the literal text of the law talks about this,” says Maria Kanevskaya, Lawyers’ Club director.

Under the law, “foreign sources” refers to the receipt of funds and (or) property from foreign States and State agencies, from international and foreign organizations, and from foreign citizens, persons without citizenship or their authorized proxies, as well as Russian legal entitles receiving funds from foreign sources.

“The listed sources of foreign funds correspond in every respect to the same categories indicated for NGOs performing the function of a ‘foreign agent’,” comments Maria Kanevskaya.

Foreign media can be declared “foreign agents” by the Russian State, the new law indicates.

“In this instance, they will be obliged to meet the requirements of an NGO performing the functions of a ‘foreign agent’, even if these foreign media are registered as commercial organizations”, says Max Olenichev. “In that case, the law grants Roskomnadzor [the Federal Oversight Agency for Information Technologies and Communications] the authority to determine how to apply the procedure for imposing the obligations of ‘foreign agent’ NGOs on foreign media.”

The Lawyers’ Club notes that foreign media declared “foreign agents” will be required to present the authorized agency an annual audit, as well as a six-monthly report on their activities and personnel, and a report on the receipt and expenditure of funds every quarter.

“These media will be subject to scheduled inspections once a year, and unannounced inspections will follow reports and complaints to Roskomnadzor,” Max Olenichev feels sure.

“Russian State bodies will only be able to exercise oversight regarding those organizations registered in Russia. So, we should expect new repressive laws concerning unregistered foreign media that are currently operating in Russia.”

At the same time, the Lawyers’ Club notes, “foreign-agent” media will not be required to label their output as being produced “by a foreign agent,” the situation for regular Foreign Agent NGOs, since such requirements have not been established by the new law.

“Application of the law on ‘foreign agents’ has virtually destroyed civil society in Russia,” believes Max Olenichev.

“Equating foreign media with ‘foreign agents’ makes it possible to monitor the dissemination of critical information, and give the State the opportunity to halt the circulation of information detrimental to its interests. This is in direct contradiction to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Freedom of Expression).”

“We are ready to provide legal assistance to foreign media defending themselves against this law,” says Maria Kanevskaya. “We have a great deal of experience in defending NGOs in Russia from the effects of the law on ‘foreign agents’, and we are prepared to help foreign media continue their activities in Russia.”

(To read how the law on “foreign agents” has been applied to non-profit organizations in Russia, see the Club’s May 2016 report, “Civic activism develops despite the obstacles: Russian NGOs since the legislation on ‘Foreign Agents’.” 

The Lawyers’ Club notes that this law has adopted amendments that will enable Roskomnadzor, at the request of the Prosecutor-General’s Office, to block websites if they contain references to undesirable organizations. On 13 November 2017, the Andrei Rylkov Foundation was fined 50,000 roubles for a reference to the Soros Foundation. The NGO Lawyers’ Club is advising in that case.

Translation by Marian Schwartz