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Russian Senator Andrey Klishas, one of the authors of the new legislation submitted to the State Duma

Russian lawmakers want to make it possible to blacklist individual people — literally anybody with Internet access — as foreign-agent mass media outlets

Source: Meduza
Russian Senator Andrey Klishas, one of the authors of the new legislation submitted to the State Duma
Russian Senator Andrey Klishas, one of the authors of the new legislation submitted to the State Duma
Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS

It was only last month that Russia amended its media laws to apply foreign-agent regulations to news organizations, and the Justice Ministry has already added nine outlets to its registry. Now the State Duma has decided to expand the law again, this time by treating individual people as entire mass media outlets. Any person or entity flagged as a foreign agent, moreover, will also be required to establish legal representation in Russia, so they can cooperate with the Justice Ministry. Meduza takes a closer look at the latest, greatest legislation to come to the State Duma.

What have the deputies proposed this time?

The new legislation states that any individual person can be recognized as a foreign-agent mass media outlet, if they meet the following two criteria:

  1. The individual disseminates “information materials.”
  2. The individual receives money from foreign sources.

The draft law offers no further criteria and no explanation about how the Justice Ministry will search for these mass-media individuals. Federal lawmakers have confirmed that the new law would apply to both foreigners and Russian citizens.

After being declared a foreign agent, an individual would be required to create a legal entity for formal cooperation with the Justice Ministry. Refusal to do so could result in that individual’s publications being blocked by the government.

Why is this necessary?

The legislation’s explanatory note doesn’t mention a word about this, but the law’s co-author, Senator Andrey Klishas, has said the new regulations are meant to target the owners of websites: “Individuals who disseminate information to an open, unlimited audience in the interests of a foreign state, who are legally recognized as foreign-agent mass media outlets, will be required to mark all relevant content.”

Meanwhile, one of the legislation’s other authors, State Duma Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy downplayed concerns that the new norms would be enforced against bloggers, calling the idea “a very theoretical assumption.” “The Russian blogger sitting quietly at home and writing his blog has absolutely nothing to do with these norms,” he claims. In his view, the amendments could apply to “Telegram bots and different artificially created mass media outlets.”

The legislation has won praise from Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of Rossiya Segodnya and Russia Today. She says the amendments are necessary to register authors in Russia hired by “U.S. State Department media outlets.” “There’s no oversight on them, but now apparently there will be,” Simonyan said.

Senator Klishas has also defended the legislation by arguing that it’s simply modeled on the U.S. 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, which can be enforced against individuals who represent foreign organizations. The American law, however, doesn’t equate these individuals to mass media outlets, and the “foreign agent” marker is only required if the person is disseminating information that the Justice Department determines to be political propaganda. In Russia, every single publication by registered foreign agents must indicate that it is the product of a foreign agent.

Why is this bad?

These amendments would completely shatter the legal status of the mass media in Russia. Until recently, only newspapers, websites, television networks, and radio stations could be legally registered as mass media outlets. The legislation on foreign agents passed in November already complicated this picture by adding any foreign “structure” to this list. Now lawmakers want to make it so the Justice Ministry can equate any given individual to a full-blown newsroom, and all their correspondence and posts online would become “the materials of a foreign-agent mass media outlet.” As with the November legislation, the new amendments would only saddle these “media outlets” with new requirements and restrictions (like the need to report regularly to the Justice Ministry), without granting any special privileges or rights.

The law could be enforced against anyone who crowdfunds online. In fact, the Justice Ministry would be able to declare any person a foreign agent just because they wrote something online and also received money from some foreign source. The most obvious example is politician Alexey Navalny, who actively fundraises on the Internet for his presidential campaign (before being registered formally, a candidate can accept contributions from anywhere). The legislation says nothing about the language used by “individual foreign agents,” meaning that the letter of the law suggests even Donald Trump could be registered as a foreign agent, as an active Twitter user who collects a salary from the U.S. government.

Working out the bugs

In addition to adding new restrictions, these amendments are designed to refine a few ambiguities in the November law. Now foreign agents will be required to create legal entities in Russia, so they can cooperate with the Justice Ministry (this is meant to enable Russian law enforcement to regulate organizations that are based abroad, beyond the Russian government’s reach).

Lawmakers have also developed a more detailed mechanism for requiring the marking of content published by foreign agents. Now any website (including social networks) must add the appropriate label to any materials created and released by foreign-agent media outlets.

The legislation submitted to the State Duma was drafted by four members of parliament: Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia), Leonid Levin (A Just Russia), Andrey Klishas (United Russia), and Lyudmila Bokova (United Russia). The amendments won’t be considered until mid-January at the soonest.

Story by Mikhail Zelenskiy, translation by Kevin Rothrock