Russia’s Justice Ministry finally gave some insight into potential grounds for labeling journalists ‘foreign agents’

Russian journalist Sonya Groysman, who has been labeled as a “foreign agent,” protesting outside of the FSB headquarters in Moscow. August 21, 2021.Vladislav Shatilo / RBC / TASS

During a meeting of Russia’s Presidential Council for Human Rights on August 23, a representative from the Justice Ministry fielded questions about “legitimate grounds” for labeling a journalist as a “foreign agent.” After the meeting, Human Rights Council member Eva Markacheva shared the responses on Facebook and warned that “all journalists” are at risk of being slapped with this designation. At the same time, she urged media workers not to despair and announced that the Human Rights Council plans to draft amendments to Russia’s “foreign agents” law. Meduza shares the revelations from the Human Rights Council meeting here.

On August 23, Russia’s Presidential Council for Human Rights held a meeting that included a discussion about the independent television channel Dozhd (TV Rain) being designated as a “foreign-agent” media outlet. During the meeting, Justice Ministry representative Roman Tsyganov explained to the council members that Dozhd was added to the agency’s “foreign agent” registry following appeals from the federal censor (Roskomnadzor) and the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring). 

According to Tsyganov, Roskomnadzor informed the Justice Ministry that the television channel was distributing information from other “foreign agents,” while Rosfinmonitoring reported that Dozhd was the recipient of foreign funding. Commenting on these revelations, the Human Rights Council’s Chairman Valery Fadeev said that Dozhd was added to the “foreign agent” list on legitimate grounds.

Update. On August 24, the Russian Justice Ministry claimed that Dozhd was added to its “foreign-agent media” registry because the television channel allegedly received 130,000 euros from the European Union (that’s nearly $153,000 by today’s exchange rate). “Rosfinmonitoring also established that Dozhd TV Channel LLC receives indirect foreign financing through Russian foundations,” the agency said in a statement.

The council members then asked the Justice Ministry’s representative a number of questions about what could serve as the basis for adding a specific publication or individual journalist to the agency’s list of “foreign agents.” After the meeting, Human Rights Council member Eva Merkacheva shared the Q&A in a lengthy Facebook post, revealing the following “legitimate grounds” for this designation:

If a journalist went on a press tour paid for by a foreign organization, can they be declared a “foreign agent.” Answer — “Yes.”If a journalist went to an international conference at the expense of the organizers, can they be declared a “foreign agent.” Answer — “Yes.”If a journalist won an international competition and their trip abroad to accept the award was paid for, can they be declared a “foreign agent”? Answer — “Yes.”If a journalist has friends and relatives living abroad who sent them money for their birthday, can they be declared a “foreign agent”? Answer — “Yes.”Do you have to prove that a journalist or media outlet is conducting political activity in order to declare them a “foreign agent”? Answer — “No,” this is only required for NGOs and individuals. Do individuals designated as “foreign agents” have to label each and every one of their posts on social media? Answer — “Yes.”

The participants at the meeting also asked what they can do for those who are added to the “foreign-agent media” registry. The Justice Ministry’s representative suggested either challenging the decision in court or, after some time has passed, informing Roskomnadzor that the publication or the journalist in question is no longer violating the law — in turn, the censorship agency will contact the Justice Ministry about removing them from the “foreign agent” list.

“In general, things aren’t great. All journalists are potential foreign agents. But don’t despair!” Eva Merchakeva wrote, adding that the Human Rights Council is going to prepare amendments to the law on “foreign agents.” In particular, the council will propose introducing a warning system, so that media outlets and workers will only be designated as “foreign agents” after receiving notices and fines. 

“I would like for the [Justice Ministry] not to consider appeals for recognition as ‘foreign agents’ from citizens and organizations, but only as a result of a routine inspection by government agencies. There’s no need to nurture informers,” Merkacheva said, noting that the amendments are unlikely to be adopted earlier than October.

Human Rights Council member Nikolai Svanidze also told Interfax about the plan to draft changes to the law on “foreign agents.” “We decided that this task needs to be approached strategically […] We will prepare proposals for amendments to the legislation,” he said.

Also on August 23, Anastasia Sechina, the former head of the freelance journalists’ association Sector Four, found out that this organization was designated as a “foreign agent” NGO due to its alleged political activity. According to the Justice Ministry’s report, as quoted by Sechina, the grounds for the designation were Sector Four’s “negative assessment of the actions of government bodies,” “propaganda of supportive attitudes towards LGBT [people],” and involvement in street protests in support of their colleagues, such as journalists Ivan Golunov and Ivan Safronov.

Sector Four announced its dissolution back in July, following a surprise inspection by the Justice Ministry. It was added to the agency’s registry of “foreign-agent” NGOs in August. According to Sechina, the defunct organization “still faces a serious fine” for failing to register itself as a “foreign agent.” 

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Story by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Eilish Hart


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