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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 40, New Delhi, Sept 18, 2021

Russia’s ‘Foreign Agent Act’: State Justification Against Media Reaction | R G Gidadhubli

Friday 17 September 2021

by R.G.Gidadhubli*

September 7, 2021

On the 27th August 2021 a group of independent media in Russia including Forbes, Novaya Gazeta, Dozhd, and Meduza – issued six demands, including the rescinding of the Russian a law labeling certain independent media and journalists as “Foreign Agents”. This was in response to the policy of the Russian Government which has recently amended the law known as ‘Foreign Agent’ act passed in 2012 and modified repeatedly. An effort has been made to highlight the justification by the Russian State to enact this “Foreign Agent” Law as against the reaction by independent Russia’s media groups.

Firstly, the "Foreign Agent" designation was made under a law used by Russian authorities to target nongovernmental organizations and individuals who receive funding from abroad and are deemed to be engaging in "political" activities. At the same time the intention of the law is to target media, NGOs, and individuals that receive funding from outside of Russia. As per latest reports 43 entities and individuals have been designated as foreign agents in Russia. This has created great displeasure among the Media in Russia. Hence a number of leading Russian news journals and websites have joined forces to protest against the targeting by authorities of a growing number of independent media outlets and journalists under Russia’s controversial “Foreign Agent” law.

Secondly, as opined by some analysts the objective and intent of the Russian government is to restrict the work of investigative journalists shedding light on corruption and alleged government misdeeds, with elections for parliament to be held in September 2021. According to some Russia analysts, the Russian Government is concerned about the impact of reporting by some foreign media on the Russian voters on the election for the Russian Parliament to be held in September 2021. It is important event on 19th September when Russia will vote to choose members of the Russian parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, 39 regional parliaments, and nine regional governors. The Russian President Mr. Vladimir Putin wants that there should be no opposition to United Russia Party candidates and they should get elected in large number. This is because according to the state-funded pollster VTsIOM, the support for United Russia as of 15th August is very low and it was just over 27 percent as compared to 64 percent about a year back. The Kremlin has cracked down on opposition political figures and independent media as the popularity of United Russia and Putin has been declining amid the Kremlin’s flagging efforts to deal with an economy hit by the coronavirus pandemic and years of ongoing international sanctions.

Thirdly, it was reported by high profile media experts Mikhail Sokolov and Michael Scollon on 25th August that Russian President Vladimir Putin was in a generous and agreeable mood when he attended a congress of the ruling but reeling United Russia party just weeks ahead of nationwide legislative elections. After he and party leaders considered a range of proposals on ways the pro-Kremlin party could move forward, Putin gave his stamp of approval to some new programs and sweetened others with federal funds. The President also suggested that his proposed new outlays, amounting to about 500 billion rubles ($6.7 billion), should be sorted out by the next government to ensure the funds are disbursed this year, leading to claims from critics and political opponents that the president was essentially bribing the financially vulnerable with a "vote us in and we will pay you later" scheme. In response to this policy decisions, as opined by some analysts voting that takes place on 17th and 19th Sept for 450 State Duma (Parliament) seats but ruling United Russia Party is in dire straits.

Fourthly, it is evident that the "foreign agent" label implies closer government scrutiny. It also has connotations that could undermine the credibility of media outlets and even hurt their advertising revenue. The Russian law, first passed in 2012, now requires designated media to label their all content with an intrusive disclaimer. Some media have complied, even amid fears that the labels would scare off advertisers. At least one designated Russian news outlet has closed. Russia’s media Meduza has resorted to crowd funding to continue operating. It needs to be mentioned that Russia’s well known media Dozhd has expressed its great displeasure claiming that its advertisers are wholly Russian, not foreign, but were targeted because it printed, or broadcast, material from other designated foreign agents. Similarly according to Meduza a Latvian-based news site has also been designated a foreign agent. Latvia is one of the Baltic States of the former Soviet Union.

Fifth, as reported on 21st August the Russian police detained several journalists who were protesting in Moscow against a decision by authorities to label a top independent television channel as a “foreign agent.” In fact it was most astonishing that some of the protestors were detained after holding up protest signs with messages such as “Journalism is not a crime”. Hence to circumvent Russian laws against unauthorized protest gatherings, the journalists held individual pickets outside the main headquarters of the country’s top domestic security agency, the FSB, on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.

Sixth, the Rights groups and other critics say the law is a tool to crack down on media freedom and silence the critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies. For instance, the Dozhd channel has been sharply critical of Russian authorities’ crackdown on dissent. It has regularly carried live reports about opposition protests. It also has extensively covered the poisoning and the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and the criminal cases authorities have launched against his allies.

Seventh, in defending the law, the Russian officials have frequently drawn a parallel to the American foreign agent law, which dates back to the 1930s. As per the US law foreign-funded media outlets have been required to register under the U.S. FARA as opined by Mike Eckel. Hence it seems evident that Foreign Agent Law passed by Russia is in response to similar law passed by America and European countries. In fact Russia’s media outlets are also operating in European counties to promote Russia’s publicity interest. Hence Russia’s policy was defended by the Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov while speaking during a news conference in Moscow on 25th August 2021. He asserted that RT, Sputnik and a few other media outlets namely Rossia Sevodnya which are operating in the USA had been forced to label their content in the United States. Lavrov reiterated "We have never been the first to start such kind of activities. However, if such discriminatory actions are being taken against our media and our citizens, if they are being labeled as foreign agents and persecuted, then of course we will respond. But we will not respond in order to take revenge, simply to bring our relations in a given area to parity."

Eighth, the Russian state has been candid in taking strong policy measures on movement of foreign journalists which as reported by the Paris-based media-freedom watchdog "foreign reporters will only be allowed to go about their work unhindered as long as they refrain from criticizing those in power in the Kremlin too strongly". As expected there is strong reaction by the Western media which is evident from the fact that the RSF Germany director Christian Mihr urged democratic governments to "vigorously defend the fundamental right to freedom of expression in their future relations with Russia." In his opinion "Without independent media reporting social reality in Russia, the elections lose all their meaning." On 24th August 2021, the Media Working Group of the European Parliament issued a statement strongly condemning the Russian government’s use of "foreign agent" legislation. In this context as per reports on 30th August the BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford who worked for about two decades in Russia has left Russia as a result of a de facto expulsion that the British broadcaster called an assault on media freedom amid a dispute with Moscow over the treatment of foreign journalists. It appears that the Russian State is not in agreement with this contention because Moscow has alleged that there was mistreatment in the case of a Russian journalist for the Russian state’s TASS news agency who it says was effectively expelled in 2019 when his visa was not renewed without explanation.

Ninth it is astonishing that even internet organizations are not spared, which was revealed by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which has stated on 31st August 2021 that the Russian state is "tightening its grip" on the Internet, "drastically" restricting freedom of the press and of expression ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections. Hence there is strong reaction to Russia’s Foreign Agent Law. For instance, the Human Rights Watch has described the Russia’s "foreign agent" legislation as "restrictive" and intended to ”demonize independent groups”.

In lieu of conclusion it may be stated that the Russian President Mr. Vladimir Putin decided to adopt “Foreign Agent” law from his perspective of security of Russia, having witnessed adverse impact of Gorbachev’s Policy of Openness and disintegration of the former Soviet Union and crisis during the first decade of Independent Russia under Boris Yeltsin. Having remained in power for about two decades, how far his policy will succeed is yet to be seen.

* (Author: Dr R G Gidadhubli, Professor and Former Director, Center for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai)

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