The US Department of Justice (and the mainstream US media following its lead) gave a royal gift to the “ideological hawks” in the Kremlin, one that even the boldest propagandists dared not dream of. The Russian television channels Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik have been forced to register as “foreign agents”; the stormy (and completely unsurprising) reactions have escalated the information wars, whose consequences are difficult to predict.
Russian lawmakers reacted to the DOJ’s decision emotionally and quickly: In just a few days, amendments were passed without discussion on the media law, adding paragraphs on foreign media and “foreign structures distributing information.” The law regulating non-commercial organizations can now impose on them the status of a foreign agent. “This is a very broad formulation,” says Galina Arapova, director of the Mass Media Defence Centre, media lawyer, and member of the board of Article 19. “It applies to all foreign mass media and foreign structures that produce information for an unlimited circle of readers or viewers; the important part is that they receive foreign money. Obviously, all non-Russian mass media and Internet sites will be considered foreign. Every lawyer understands the absurdity of ‘transferring’ to foreign mass media registered in other countries the norms of the law on non-commercial foreign agent organizations that are registered on Russian territory, and which therefore must follow Russian legislation. This is beyond political control; this is a farce. Russian law cannot force a foreign company registered in another country to present financial reports to the Ministry of Justice if the company doesn’t even have a representative office in Russia. By the way, the Law on Mass Media governs the distribution of foreign mass media on the territory of Russia as well as the registration of their bureaus. It is clear that the new amendment is aimed primarily at the media whose target audience is the Russian reader. The amendment is essentially a declarative political statement.”
In other words, all mass media with foreign financing can be put on the list of “agents” and will be required to present financial documentation, information on employees, and other information to the Russian authorities. Noncompliance brings astronomical fines and even a block on information resources. The basis for inclusion on the agent list is not defined and in fact all foreign companies might be subject to it, from The New York Times to The Herald of Zimbabwe.
Russia’s Presidential Council on Human Rights immediately responded with harsh criticism of the initiative and asked for at least a postponement, since the amendment texts had many errors and contradictions. It must be said that in the last few years the Council has been calling on Parliament and the president to repeal the law on foreign agents, which until now applied only to NGOs and made life very difficult not only for more than a hundred organizations on the list but for the work of civil society as a whole. Moreover, there were fears that the latest proposals, which essentially made it impossible for foreign mass media to work in Russia, was not the end—that the screws would be tightened even more. The speed with which the president signed the amendments supported this concern. But the greatest blow was the US Congress’s decision to take away the accreditation of RT journalists. In response, some Russian parliamentarians proposed taking away the accreditation of all American journalists by the State Duma. However, journalists feel that it is almost impossible for this to happen, since accreditation for foreign correspondents in Russia is given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the meantime, the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and its departments, such as Kavkaz Realii and Krym Realii, have already been informed that they need to register as foreign agents. At the moment of writing, there are nine US media outlets on the list. The consequences of these decisions will be much harsher for them than for RT in the United States. The OSCE, the International Federation of Journalists, and other international organizations have called for both countries, Russia and the United States, to rescind their decisions, which are contrary to the principles of freedom of speech and of journalists not persecuting each other. The appeals have not been heard. On the contrary, the information war is heating up.