World Life as a 'foreign agent': Inside Russia's crackdown on free speech

12:18  17 october  2021
12:18  17 october  2021 Source:   nbcnews.com

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Russia ' s Justice and Foreign Ministries will decide who to brand foreign agents . Designated individuals will be required to inform the Russian government of their status, register as foreign media agents and file financial reports. Anyone who fails to comply will face hefty fines. Rights activists and public figures launched a petition asking Putin not to sign the bill amid fears that its wording would allow authorities to apply it selectively against independent journalists and bloggers to further stifle free speech in Russia .

Russia under President Vladimir Putin has grown increasingly intolerant of voices that challenge the conservative values championed by the Kremlin. Putin has also empowered the security forces to crack down on anyone perceived to be a threat, leading to a spike in treason and espionage cases. The Federal Security Services (FSB) this month arrested on treason charges Ivan Safronov, a former journalist who had recently joined Russia ' s space agency as an adviser. The 30-year-old won accolades for breaking important political and defense stories. He was forced to resign last year from

MOSCOW — Russia is in the midst of the largest crackdown on the free press and political dissent since the Soviet era.

The trends driving it are numerous, and have been in place for years. But the past 18 months have seen an extraordinary increase in pressure applied on independent journalism by the state.

Instead of overt brutality, this latest campaign is being waged quietly with a vague legal tool: a law regulating the activities of so-called foreign agents.

Its first use against a media outlet came in 2017, when several U.S.-government funded outlets like Voice of America were declared foreign agents. But, last year, the state began to deploy it against independent Russian journalists.

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VLADIMIR PUTIN was urged to call off his crackdown on ' foreign agent ' media by several Russian publications. He added it was needed to protect Russia from meddling by foreign hostile forces and that journalists and NGOs can be easily manipulated. The legislation behind the term " foreign agent " was originally passed in 2012 to cover NGOs. It was expanded to include media companies in 2017 after the Kremlin-funded RT (formerly Russia Today) was declared a " foreign agent " in the United States.

“Because of the ‘ foreign agents ’ label characters and sources are reluctant to talk to journalists, officials use it as an excuse not to answer our questions, other outlets prefer not to cite Mediazona (they must mention that we’re a ‘ foreign agent ’), and readers suffer because of the pointless “Of course we will continue to work as we did before, this cannot stop us. We will see which problems this will bring, but life does not get easier after such a label,” he added. The designations come as Russia has promised to continue to crack down on opposition even after the parliamentary elections.

“It is not about receiving money from abroad,” said Sonya Groisman, 27, a reporter who was added to the foreign agent list after her outlet, Proekt, was disbanded after being labeled “undesirable.”

“It is a law to silence all independent voices,” she said.

The first targets in this assault on independent, critical journalism in Russia were legal entities — i.e., entire newsrooms. But recently, the state has taken to applying the label to individual journalists, too. Groisman was one of those. And the list is public, often serving as the initial notification that affected parties receive from the authorities informing them of their new reality.

The challenges faced by Russian journalists were recognized by the Norwegian Nobel Committee on Oct. 8, with Dmitry Muratov — an editor at independent news outlet Novaya Gazeta — jointly awarded this year’s peace prize for his “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression” in the country.

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Russia ' s main domestic spy agency has listed dozens of types of information for which Russians who disclose them abroad can be branded as " foreign agents ", a move critics say creates risks for journalists who cover the army or space. Russia broadened its legislation against " foreign agents " Russia broadened its legislation against " foreign agents " last year so that people can be designated if they deliberately gather military or military-technical information seen as used in the interests of a foreign government or organisation. The Federal Security Service published a list of 60 non-classified

Russia ' s ministry of justice also categorized the independent media outlet's editor in chief as a foreign agent . For immediate release. October 1, 2021. “The labelling of Mediazona and its editor-in-chief as foreign agents is yet another direct attack on freedom of expression by the Russian authorities”, said PEN America’s Eurasia director Polina Sadovskaya. “The Russians intensified their crackdown on independent media in the run-up to this month’s state Duma elections, and this week’s addition of Mediazona to the registry shows that Russian authorities have no intention of stopping this

Muratov dedicated the award to his “deceased colleagues,” a direct reference to the price independent journalists in Russia have paid over the years for doing their work. Novaya Gazeta, in particular, has taken a heavy toll. Muratov received the award one day after the 15th anniversary of the murder of their most famous reporter, Anna Politkovskaya.

The Kremlin press office told NBC News that those who are labeled foreign agents are not actually legally limited from working as journalists by law, and they have the right to appeal the designation in court.

A Glimpse Into Life In Russia Today (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) © Spencer Platt A Glimpse Into Life In Russia Today (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The foreign agent law was signed in 2012. Before its first use against the media in 2017, the state used it against NGOs and civil society groups — often those with focuses on human rights — that had received foreign grant money.

“I don’t think there has ever been a worse time for Russian civic society and media in general,” Alexey Kovalev, an editor at independent news site Meduza said. “And I think we have not even hit rock bottom yet, because this machine doesn’t really have a reverse gear. It is actually getting worse.”

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He also used his appearance to condemn the recent branding of numerous Russia -focused media outlets as " foreign agents ." "To declare people as foreign agents is shameful for me. Russian investigators insist there was no evidence of state involvement in the incident and have said it could prove to be a contract slaying. On Friday, chair of the committee Berit Reiss-Andersen announced that the prize would be awarded jointly to Muratov and Filipino investigative reporter Maria Ressa in honor of their commitment to free speech , which was described as “ a precondition for democracy and lasting

Despite widespread criticism highlighting the US crackdown on free speech in the country, RT journalists lost their access to the US Congress. RT’ s programming was also removed from some broadcast frequencies. In response, Russia adopted legislation introducing a ‘ foreign agent ’ status for a number of media outlets, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. It remains to be seen if China will do the same. News of the DOJ orders comes amid escalating trade tensions between Beijing and Washington.

The way it works is simple: every Friday, the Ministry of Justice updates a public list of “foreign agents” published on its website. There are around 90 organizations and individuals on the list now. The size of the list has nearly doubled over the past month, with almost every major independent outlet now featured.

“The authorities have become smart and sophisticated,” Gulnoza Said, director for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said. “They don’t use the targeted killings of journalists as 20 years ago. They use legislation to legitimize the crackdown.”

By labelling a journalist or media outlet a foreign agent, the state is thrusting upon them two significant legal burdens: The first is a disclaimer, prescribed by law, that must accompany everything they post online; the second is a quarterly report on all of their financial activities. Any misstep on either could lead to criminal prosecution and/or fines.

“It is not the Russian state that drives you out of business, you have to kill your own business yourself,” Kovalev said. “You have to hire a lawyer to deal with the paperwork, an accountant to deal with the financial filings. And now, when you have individual people declared foreign agents, you see how devastating this actually is.”

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President Vladimir Putin addressed the law at a forum in Moscow on Wednesday, defending the foreign agent list as a routine act of bureaucracy, akin to the Foreign Agent Registration Act in the United States. That law obliges think-tanks, lobbyists, and foreign state-funded media outlets to report financial ties to foreign governments, but is less aggressive than the Russian law.

“This law was adopted in the United States in the 1930s, and it is still in use today, applied to Russian media outlets, among other things,” Putin said. “Both there and in our country this is done with one purpose: to protect internal political processes from outside influence. Foreign agents are not prohibited from political or any professional activities, they just have to register.”

A Glimpse Into Life In Russia Today (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) © Provided by NBC News A Glimpse Into Life In Russia Today (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The CPJ’s Said said that when the U.S. used its FARA law against Russian state-funded outlets Russia Today and Sputnik in 2017, the organization warned against it, arguing the Russian government would engage in a tit-for-tat response from Russian authorities. That is what happened to Voice of America in Russia, he said.

The CPJ also warned that Russia would take it one step further and use their version of FARA against independent media outlets. That, too, is what happened, he said.

Russian journalists hit with the label at home point out that  there is no trial, and no burden on the state to provide evidence that an organization or individual added to the foreign agent register ever received any money from abroad.

For those who find themselves on the list, it feels permanent.

“The only cases in which someone was able to get off the list are organizations that destroyed themselves, but I cannot destroy myself,” Groisman said. “So there are only two options: the first option is that some officials ask the Ministry of Justice to remove you from the list.”

“The second option is my death,” she said. “Maybe that is more realistic.”

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This is interesting!