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What you need to know about Russia’s updated ‘foreign agent’ laws

Source: Meduza
Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On December 25, Russian senators approved a law that allows for ordinary citizens and informal organizations (ones not registered as legal entities) to be deemed “foreign agents” if they are involved in political activity in Russia and receive assistance from abroad. The new law refers to more than just financial assistance and offers a broad interpretation of what constitutes political activity. What’s more, potential foreign agents are responsible for registering their status themselves and, under yet another law, failure to do so can threaten not only a fine, but also up to five years in prison. Now, all that’s left is for Russian President Vladimir Putin to sign these new measures into law, which he undoubtedly will. Meduza breaks down why this new legislation puts almost everyone at risk of being labeled a foreign agent.

Fact #1: Almost any Russian citizen can be labeled a foreign agent now

The concept of recognizing individuals as foreign agents appeared in Russia’s legislation at the end of 2019. At the time, it was decided that the “foreign agent media” label could be applied not only to mass media outlets but also to individual people who post information online and receive income from abroad (regardless of what they are actually being paid for). Those who distribute information from media outlets recognized as foreign agents can also be deemed foreign agents themselves. And the Russian Justice Ministry may include these people on its list of foreign agents.

Under the new law, there are broader grounds for considering a person or organization a foreign agent, encompassing any engagement in “political activities” on Russian soil that are in the interests of a “foreign source.”

The law’s definition of “political activity” is extremely broad. In particular, it includes election monitoring, social media posts about Russian politics, and taking part in rallies. 

While being deemed a foreign agent for these activities does require “support from abroad,” this no longer just means foreign funding. According to the new law, “other organizational and methodological assistance” is also incriminating. Moreover, it’s not just assistance from “foreign sources” that’s problematic, but also from their intermediaries — Russian citizens and organizations “acting in the interests of foreign sources.” For example, a person working as an election monitor who receives reading materials from an organization labeled as a foreign agent has put themselves on a direct track to the foreign agent registry. Same goes for anyone who takes part in a demonstration organized by a foreign agent.

Obviously, in this way, one foreign agent can lead to another.

In addition, a person could also end up on the foreign agent list for collecting information about Russia’s military and military-technical activities that a foreign source could use “against the security of the Russian Federation” (unless their actions constitute treason or espionage). 

Most importantly, a person who could be considered a foreign agent for any of these reasons is expected to declare their “agent” status to the Justice Ministry themselves. After that, they are expected to report on their activities, including spending of foreign funds, at least once every six months. Moreover, they have to indicate their foreign agent status on any and all materials they distribute. 

Fact #2: Failure to register as a foreign agent threatens fines and even jail time

If the corresponding amendments to the Administrative Code are adopted, a potential foreign agent who fails to declare their status themselves could be fined between 30,000 and 50,000 rubles (about $407–$678). Moreover, if the corresponding amendments to the Criminal Code are adopted, a foreign agent who fails to report their status after receiving such a fine risks up to five years in prison. Meanwhile, a person involved in collecting information on Russia’s military activities who fails to declare themselves as a potential foreign agent could face criminal liability immediately.

In other words, you’re better off declaring yourself a foreign agent than risking your money and potentially your freedom.

A similar rule applies for filing reports on a foreign agent’s activities. Failing to indicate one’s foreign agent status threatens a lighter punishment — fines ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 rubles (about $136–407).

Foreign agents will also be banned from taking up positions in local government and state agencies.

Fact #3: The exceptions are few and far between

Only foreign diplomats and foreign journalists are not expected to declare themselves foreign agents (though the Justice Ministry has the right to expand the list of exceptions). However, the new law allows for foreign journalists to be added to the list of foreign agents if the Justice Ministry deems them responsible for doing something “incompatible with the professional activities of a journalist.” 

Fact #4: Shedding the foreign agent label will be difficult 

If a person wants to get rid of their foreign agent status, they will have to submit an application to the Russian Justice Ministry. Before that, they will have to stop engaging in “political activities,” stop collecting information on the military, and stop receiving “foreign support.” The Justice Ministry is supposed to review these applications within 60 days and then remove the person or organization in question from the corresponding registry, or offer a “reasoned refusal.” If you disagree with the Justice Ministry’s position, you’ll have to challenge it in court.

The one (and only) piece of relatively good news

The new law introduces fines for failing to mention the status of a foreign agent. In the original version of the bill, it sounded as though, theoretically, one could face fines for wishing a foreign agent “Happy New Year” on Facebook without an appropriate disclaimer.

The final version of the bill specified that this rule only applies to mass media. So on top of the fact that the Russian press is expected to indicate when an organization is recognized as “extremist” in Russia, journalists will now have to include constant reminders about foreign agents.

In addition, NGOs labeled foreign agents have been allowed to nominate their candidates for public councils under federal government agencies — the original bill deprived them of this right.

Update. On Monday, December 28, the Russian Justice Ministry added five individuals to the list of “foreign agent media”: human rights defender Lev Ponomarev, Radio Svoboda journalists Lyudmila Savitskaya and Sergey Markelov, Pskovskaya Gubernia editor-in-chief Denis Kamalyagin, and St. Petersburg artist and activist Dariya Apakhonchich. This is the first time the Justice Ministry has recognized individual people as “foreign agent media.”

Text by Dmitry Kartsev

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart

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