Rights activists warned Tuesday of greater curbs on media and online freedom in Russia ahead of a vote on a controversial bill that could lead bloggers and independent journalists to be labelled “foreign agents.”
Lawmakers want to broaden existing legislation that forces foreign-funded media and NGOs to describe themselves as “foreign agents” to include individuals.
Foreign agents are required to register with the justice ministry, label the material they publish and submit much more detailed paperwork or face fines.
Critics said this would affect bloggers and even ordinary people posting on social media, although some ruling party lawmakers denied this.
Amnesty International in a joint statement with other rights groups, including Journalists Without Borders, decried it as “a further step to restrict free and independent media” and “a strong tool to silence opposition voices.”
The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, was scheduled to discuss the amendments in the crucial second reading on Tuesday afternoon.
Authors say the bill is intended to “perfect” existing legislation on “foreign agents” that already covers NGOs and media organisations.
The law will “primarily affect bloggers,” the RBK independent news site said. But president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed such concerns as “horror stories.”
“You don’t need to be a journalist, it’s enough just to write something on social media,” wrote political observer Anton Orekh.
One of the authors, Senator Andrei Klimov, told RBK that the law will affect anyone who posts “unlawful” media material and receives money from abroad, including from advertising.
Rights activist Alexander Verkhovsky, who sits on Putin’s human rights council, warned that the law could affect anyone who posted online and received any money from abroad, even for unrelated reasons.
Lawmakers insist the label would only be imposed on journalists who cover politics.
Senator Klimov told the Kommersant daily: “If someone writes about a hockey match or chasing butterflies, no one will recognise them as a foreign agent.”
Russia wants the law in order to have a tit-for-tat mechanism if its journalists are defined as foreign agents in the West, said Leonid Levin, the head of the Duma’s information policy department.
Russia first passed legislation allowing media organisations to be slapped with the label in 2017 after Kremlin-funded RT television was declared a foreign agent in the United States.
Media affected by the law include US-financed Radio Liberty/ Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.
The legislation was originally passed in 2012 to cover NGOs and has been widely used against rights groups.