“Agents” under pressure (daily newspaper Junge Welt)

Freedom demonstration with Mr Navalny in Moscow in 2018. There is little going on without outside money

Russia has adopted stricter rules against “foreign agents” in the media landscape. The most important innovation is that organizations that are politically or journalistically active with funding from abroad no longer have to identify themselves as such agents – the same obligation should also apply to natural persons who work for the relevant agent media or against payment »or other financial advantages «Spread their content. The latter provision is intended to thwart a practice whereby media financed from western countries formally dissolve, but the journalists previously working there continue to publish the information “privately”, for example as bloggers. This legal loophole has now been closed.

The designation of “non-governmental organizations” financed from abroad (many of which are financed by various governments) as foreign agents was introduced in Russia as early as 2012 – one year after the protests against the election of Vladimir Putin for a third term, which were fiercely fueled and supported by the West. Formally, it follows a regulation in the USA, where such a reporting requirement has existed since 1938. However, while in English the word “agent” in this context mostly means to act as “representative”, in Russian it has direct secret service connotations, and the deterrent effect resulting from it is also intended.

The US-controlled interference organization “Human Rights Watch” (HRW) criticized that “human rights activists” would continue to “isolate themselves from Russian society” if their employees had to identify themselves as agents. It was not without reason that the Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy, Leonid Levin, assured soothingly that the provisions of the law would “not be used against bloggers or Russian publicists.” The problem with this assurance is: only against these do they develop a deterrent effect, only against them do they make sense in the legislative sense. And this can also cast doubt on their honesty. Since the law also works a lot with can-do provisions that open up scope for discretion, it tends to create legal uncertainty.

The consequences that the status of “foreign agent” has for the individual citizen go even further. In future, he will have to indicate his status in all correspondence with authorities – for example, if he as a journalist requests official information. Agents are excluded from employment in public service and from running for public office. Such restrictions on the right to stand as a candidate have only existed in the Russian legal system for convicted prisoners while they were in prison.

On the same occasion, the reporting requirements for legal entities – associations, foundations, etc. – with foreign funding were tightened. Previously, they had to state every six months whether they received money from foreign sources, but now they are obliged to submit such reports firstly every three months and secondly to disclose how much money they received and what they spent it on. In total, around 150 organizations are currently registered as “foreign agents” in the Russian Federation. Her areas of activity range from environmental protection and legal advice to conscripts to conducting opinion polls (the Lewada Institute, which is well-respected from a professional point of view) and anti-Soviet historical policy (Memorial). The US broadcaster Radio Liberty, of course such a foreign agent, is playing a game of cat and mouse with the authorities by constantly putting new portals online under new names.

A second legislative project, which has now been introduced to the State Duma, operates on a different track. Foreign IT companies are threatened with blocking their services in Russia if they themselves have blocked content on Russian sites. This is directed against media giants such as Facebook, Google or its subsidiary Youtube, which on the instructions of the US government, the sites of Russian state media such as Russia Today or Sputnik blocked or marked accordingly. Russia says it has recorded around 20 cases since April of its media being hindered or branded in this way. The fact that the Russian countermeasures hit the media companies at a sensitive point was made clear by the diaper-soft reaction of the self-proclaimed human rights watchdogs at HRW to the project: It is not at all denied that internet companies operated their deletion policy according to opaque criteria (which is a glossing over – the task is clear and is not disputed by anyone: to fight »disinformation« on a political basis), but to switch off their services completely, overshoot the mark and rob the Russians of important information. Apparently only one is allowed to censor.