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Date 22.11.2020

Author Roman Goncharenko, Elena Barysheva

Russia's 'foreign agent' bill foreshadows civil society clampdown

Russia is looking to better protect itself from any suspected meddling from abroad. New proposed laws could target journalists, teachers and social media networks such as YouTube and Facebook.

The general thrust of several draft laws put forward in Russia's State Duma in the past few days is that the country is facing threats from abroad and the state must act quickly to ward them off.

Most of the proposals aim to cut Russia off even more from the rest of the world. And, like similar legislation in past years, they would mean additional restrictions on civil society and opposition politicians.

Individuals also targeted

For years, people in Russia who are involved in politics and receive money from abroad have had to register as "foreign agents" with the relevant authorities. Every person or organization thus listed is obliged to send the authorities regular reports on their activities and expenditures.

The controversial designation "foreign agent" conjures up associations of espionage. So far, it has been applied particularly to NGOs and international media. But now this regulation could be expanded at the initiative of the committee in the upper house of Russia's parliament that is responsible for protecting state sovereignty from external intervention.

All citizens and groups in Russia that are involved in political activities and receive financial support from abroad are to be obliged to call themselves "foreign agents," according to the draft law. This extends the scope of the current procedure to include a large number of individual people.

It would mean that they could be banned from working as public servants or having access to confidential documents. If they run in elections, such candidates would have to publicly identify themselves as "foreign agents."

Another new aspect is that foreign journalists who are accredited in Russia could also be included in this category. In addition, Russian media could be required to mention it when reporting on organizations that are affected.

Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International's Russia researcher, has spoken of a "new witch hunt of civil society groups and human rights defenders standing up for justice and dignity." Other human rights activists have also criticized the planned measure as yet another way of suppressing civil society.

Possible blocks on YouTube and Facebook

Other new proposed regulations target social platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Parliamentarians say they are aiming to combat "internet censorship." If content from Russian media is restricted by foreign platforms, Russia would be able to impose fines or fully or partially block the social media networks. Such sanctions would be decided by the Russian public prosecutor after consultation with the Foreign Ministry.



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