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‘You can always expect retaliatory measures from Moscow’ Deputy Duma Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy explains Russia's new legislation against ‘foreign agents’ in the news media

Meduza
04:49, 16 november 2017

Deputy Duma Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy

Alexander Shalygin / TASS / Vida Press

On November 15, lawmakers in the lower house of Russia’s parliament unanimously passed all three readings of amendments to federal laws on the mass media. If adopted by the Federation Council and President Putin, the reforms will empower the Justice Ministry to add certain media outlets to Russia’s registry of foreign agents. State Duma deputies say the legislation is being expedited as a response to the U.S. Justice Department’s recent decision to require the American subsidiary of RT (Russia Today) to register as a foreign agent. Meduza spoke about the amendments with Deputy Duma Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy, who headed the working group that drafted the legislation.

Based on the text of the amendments, it seems as if any foreign entity (whether it’s a website or even an account on a social network) could be declared a foreign agent. Was this done intentionally, or is there a clearer designation at work here?

There’s a limitation in the amendments: a foreign mass media outlet or a media outlet receiving money from abroad can be declared a foreign agent. As legislators, we’re granting law enforcement agencies the opportunity to take targeted, retaliatory measures against certain mass media outlets. This doesn’t apply to everyone, it’s not universal, and it’s not an immediately applicable law. It’s a framework within which the Justice Ministry can act.

So, for example, Alexey Navalny’s blog, which [theoretically] could very well receive funding from abroad, won’t be affected by this legislation?

He won’t be affected specifically under these amendments. But there might be other things there, maybe calls to overthrow the government or incitements to other illegal acts, but that relates to the content.

Why do I say that these amendments won’t affect the freedom of speech in Russia? This isn’t just rhetoric: We never set out to influence the content of any media outlet. Russian citizens still have the opportunity to choose any information from any source. But if a mass media outlet receiving money from abroad is targeting audiences in Russia, it should have to report this openly.

Judging by the criteria laid out for identifying foreign agents in the mass media, it appears that RT could be subject to the new law, given that it works through an American company and earns ad revenue there. Is there any contradiction here?

If this were a systematic law, many companies would be affected by it. For example, the U.S. government subscribes to the news agencies TASS and Interfax, and pays them both money for these subscriptions. But we’re proceeding from the assumption that it’s unnecessary to escalate things to such insanity. RT is still not a foreign company, and so of course the law doesn’t apply here.

In the amendments, why didn’t you specify the criteria that will guide the Justice Ministry’s work identifying foreign agents?

We didn’t really want to take these measures at all, but the situation has compelled us to act. And we’re doing this so law enforcement officials have the opportunity to take retaliatory measures against those countries that restrict the rights of our journalists.

Can you at least guess what criteria might guide the Justice Ministry here?

First and foremost, the Justice Ministry can review the activities of various media outlets based on the source of their funding. How this will be implemented is a question for the ministry. This needs to be ironed out in bylaws that will regulate this work. I don’t think the list of foreign agents in the mass media will be long.

So we should expect it to be something targeted?

It will be targeted. It’s also important to note that this solution will have a therapeutic effect. In countries where Russian media outlets are now being called propaganda tools, and where officials are spreading absolutely unsubstantiated allegations about Russian hackers and talking about the toxicity of contacts with Russians, the leaders will be reminded again that they can always expect retaliatory measures from Moscow. Today’s vote in the parliament showed that the parliament can act quickly, effectively, and with the unanimous support of all its political forces.

You mentioned social networks. After the adoption of this law, we won’t be dissolving our working group. We’re going to keep monitoring various aspects in this sphere. So, if the U.S. takes further steps, we’ll take similar actions.

What kind of actions?

I’ll give you an example: I know U.S. congressmen and senators are concerned that social networks registered in the United States are unable to distinguish between good and bad advertising, worrying that they’re promoting brainwashing content. Here in Russia, we also have reasons to worry about this.

Is it correct to say that the Justice Ministry will focus primarily on the American mass media?

I’d love to answer that question for you, but I can’t speak for the Justice Ministry. That said, the logic of these amendments was publicly explained as a retaliatory measure against the United States. But when it comes to the number of media outlets affected by this law, I think the fewer, the better.

If the amendments are a retaliatory measure, why doesn’t the legislation specify any “political” criteria for identifying foreign agents in the media? In the U.S., after all, foreign agents are individual or legal entities that engage in political lobbying for a foreign power.

Any mass media outlet can be called a propaganda outlet. It’s a matter of definition, and definitions become contested when public opinions are riled up. Today, it’s the story surrounding BuzzFeed’s report on money sent to Russian embassies for the 2016 elections. [On November 14, BuzzFeed published an article suggesting that the Russian government may have sent money to embassies around the world in order to finance interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, though Russian diplomats say the money transfers, which are under FBI investigation, were to pay for overseas voting during the 2016 State Duma elections.] These fake news stories are the root of everything. We can’t not respond.

But it turns out it’s not just political news outlets, but even sports news outlets, that could be affected by this legislation.

Recently, we’ve had so many events in sports that are tied to politics that, of course, this kind of thing can’t be ruled out. We did our best not to over-define this situation, not naming specific media outlets, not naming the countries of origin, and not writing the word “political.” In the U.S., they use the 1938 law [on foreign agents] however they want: against both individuals and legal entities, and they use the concept “political lobbying.” We don’t have this concept, maybe because we have a different legal culture.

In the U.S., it was the American company hired by RT that the government forced to register as a foreign agent. Moscow, meanwhile, plans to impose restrictions on entities located outside Russia. Is this really a comparable response?

American law requires [foreign agents] to send all these materials, including their journalistic product and a 60-part questionnaire, to the Justice Department once every three months — not just a financial statement, like in our legislation. They’re also required to reveal their sources, which puts these media outlets at a competitive disadvantage. [FARA registrants in the U.S. are simply required to summarize their activity. The news agency TASS, for example, which was registered as a foreign agent in the U.S. until 1992, always submitted an identical statement about its bureau in New York. The FARA questionnaire, which has 27 parts (not 60), must be submitted every six months (not every three months). Russian nonprofit organizations that are labeled foreign agents, on the other hand, must file a new report every three months, answering more than 150 questions.]

What happens if the Justice Ministry added a media outlet to the foreign agents registry, but the outlet refuses to file the required reports?

Sanctions are prescribed in the law on foreign agents, which the new legislation amends. Our legislation's penalties are more lenient than what you find in the United States. Russian law sets out fines and administrative liability, but the maximum punishment in the U.S. is five years in prison. [Tolstoy is referring to Russia’s 2012 foreign agents law, which actually imposes a maximum two-year prison sentence on foreign agents who willfully refuse to fulfill the obligations of their status. Russia has only opened one such criminal case, which police later dismissed.]

So they won’t be blocked and added to the government’s blacklist?

There are other reasons based on content to block outlets and add them to the registry. We’re giving the Justice Ministry the formal grounds to step up financial reporting, not to influence the content that media outlets are broadcasting to their audiences.

Penalties weren’t written into the legislation, because they’re already present in the existing law on foreign agents?

Precisely. We think the Justice Ministry has already gained some experience here, albeit not as much as its American counterpart. Our list of foreign agents includes 88 organizations, whereas the American list has more than 400 registrants. But the Justice Ministry can base its law-enforcement practices on its experience of interacting with foreign-agent nonprofits.

When do you expect the amendments to take effect?

Within a week, the Federation Council will consider the legislation, and then it will head to the president’s desk. As soon as the head of state signs it, the law will come into force.

And right away we can expect to see the first lists?

First, the lists will be short. Second, before there can be any lists, a number of decisions need to be made about the legislation’s bylaws.

After speaking to Meduza, Russia’s Justice Ministry mailed warnings to the independent U.S.-government-funded media outlets Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Current Time, alerting them that they’ll likely be named foreign agents, once the new legislation enters force.

Interview in Russian by Sasha Sulim. Mikhail Zelensky contributed to this story. Translation by Kevin Rothrock.