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Russia retaliates after RT forced to register as "foreign agent" in US

Speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, top, gestures while speaking to lawmaker Leonid Levin, right, and Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy, with his back to the camera, during the session when the
Speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, top, gestures while speaking to lawmaker Leonid Levin, right, and Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy, with his back to the camera, during the session when the "foreign agent law" was passed in Moscow, Russia, 15 November 2017

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 16 November 2017.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by Russia's quid-pro-quo response to the US government's decision to make the Kremlin-funded TV channel RT register as a "foreign agent" in order to continue broadcasting in the United States.

Just two days after RT had to register as a "foreign agent" in Washington, the Duma (the Russian parliament's lower house) yesterday hastily passed a law allowing the Russian authorities to declare any foreign media outlet to be a "foreign agent."

The only criteria specified are foreign funding or being registered in another country. This will give the authorities enormous leeway when interpreting the law, which now only needs to be rubber-stamped by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin in order to take effect.

"The law's extremely vague provisions open the way to selective, arbitrary and highly political application and, at a time of unprecedented pressure on the media, are liable to make it even harder for Russian citizens to get access to freely reported news," said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

"We condemn this eye-for-an-eye response, as media freedom will be its only victim. It is highly regrettable that the US authorities started this. Combatting propaganda is one of our era's imperatives but it is not the job of governments to define what is legitimate journalism."

Under the law adopted yesterday, the draconian provisions that have applied to foreign-funded NGOs since 2012 will be extended to foreign media, which will have to put the ignominious "foreign agent" label on everything they publish or broadcast, and will have to provide a detailed accounting of their financial situation.

NGOs that do not comply with the 2012 legislation are exposed to astronomic fines that have forced dozens to close. Used as a heavy weapon against civil society, its victims have included Russia's leading media-support NGOs.

Nonetheless, the provisions that are about to be applied to foreign media outlets are even vaguer. Unlike those that apply to NGOs, they will not be conditioned on any "political activity" criteria.

According to legislators, the justice ministry will decide on a case-by-case basis how the law is applied. At this stage, one can only speculate as to its first targets, which could include such leading public broadcasters as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the BBC and Deutsche Welle. Russian exile media may also be targeted.

In Washington, it was T&R Productions LLC, the company that produces RT's programming in the United States, that filed an application on 13 November to be added to the US justice department's register of foreign agents.

Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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