Russia is increasingly labeling journalists and human rights organizations as “foreign agents.” It’s the Kremlin’s latest – and most effective – way of cracking down on any kind of opposition.
The first thing to understand about those the Russian state calls “foreign agents” is that almost all of them are actually Russian. On top of that, most of these “agents” are either journalists or activists — or the media and human rights organizations they work for.
Foreign agent (иностранный агент - inostrannyi agent) is very much a loaded term and product of Vladimir Putin’s reign. It is a criminal designation bestowed on those whose activities are considered hostile to the state and have in some way received financing from abroad.
According to Russian law, anyone can be recognized as a foreign agent. It can be a media organization, a public organization, or a person. They can engage in absolutely any activity: politics, journalism, or protecting the rights of Russian citizens. Anyone who receives even a dollar in their account from a non-Russian can become a foreign agent. Sending such payments even anonymously back does not guarantee impunity.
A crackdown on press freedom
But the impact extends beyond the purely juridical. In public discourse, foreign agents are equated with spies and enemies of the Motherland. The opposition and independent media are demanding that this phrase be removed from the law and that the penalties be abolished.
On December 15, the St. Petersburg parliament refused to consider an initiative by the opposition party Yabloko to remove the concept of a foreign agent from its legislation. As of the end of 2021, the Russian Ministry of Justice lists 33 media outlets, 62 journalists, and 79 human rights organizations as foreign agents.
The phrase is symptomatic of Russia’s transition towards autocracy.
Among the most prominent foreign agents is Novaya Gazeta, whose editor, Dmitri Muratov. recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Muratov said he would wear the title of a foreign agent with pride. However, the prize has scared off the Russian Ministry of Justice and the inclusion of Novaya in the blacklist is awaiting Putin’s decision. Now Novaya is the last free newspaper in Russia.
The law on foreign agents was adopted in 2012 as a preparation for a future electoral challenge. But the phrase has firmly entered everyday speech and is symptomatic of Russia’s transition towards autocracy. In September, Putin’s United Russia party won a parliamentary majority. However, those elections were marred by reports of fraud and Putin’s biggest critics were barred from running.
A Russian misinterpretation of a U.S. law
The fear of foreign interference in Russia's affairs comes from Russia’s historical ideology of confronting world evil. Yet it is customary in Russia to justify certain actions by mentioning precedents set around the world.
When presenting the federal law on foreign agents, the government was referring to the American Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) law, enacted in 1938, in response to the growing number of organizations sympathetic to Hitler. At that time, Congress could not simply ban Nazi propaganda because the First Amendment guaranteed freedom of speech. Therefore, it decided that organizations or individuals performing any tasks of a foreign state must officially report and register with the state authorities, with no restrictions placed on lobbying activities.
This is not a legal issue, but a political one.
The FARA law applies only to media outlets in which U.S. citizens own less than 80% of the capital and whose editorial policies are controlled by foreign governments. The point of including the media in the list of foreign agents in the U.S. is purely bureaucratic and does not interfere with their work.
The Russian government copied the name of the FARA law but not its essence. An anonymous source in the Russian newspaper Kommersant notes the letter of the law is not so important in such projects. "This is not a legal issue, but a political one. There can be any number of mistakes, and bills pass if the subject of lawmaking is ‘correct.’ If such laws are introduced, it means that someone needs it," they said.
Synonymous with traitor
Russian TV channel Dojd, recognized as a foreign agent in Russia, is fully controlled by Russian shareholders and is not run by any foreign government. So is the human rights organization Memorial, which researches repression in the USSR.
Moreover, while in English the word “agent” is open-ended, in Russian, it is more synonymous with traitor or spy.
If a media outlet or organization is recognized as a foreign agent, any publication must be accompanied by a disclaimer stating that the material is distributed by a foreign agent. This is a huge warning attached to the material, even on social networks, to scare away advertisers if it is about the media and voters if it is about elections. Eventually, the stigma of being labeled as such often leads to bankruptcy, as financing a foreign agent entails criminal penalties and thus dissuades people or organizations from providing funding.
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