In 2012, Russian authorities enacted the “Foreign Agents” legislation. The law stated that any entity that receives funding from sources outside the country or that is engaged in “political activity” according to the Russian government, is considered a “foreign agent”. Since 2012, the legislation has been modified to include more entities, such as non-Russian media and journalists. Non-compliant entities may face fines or in the case of journalists, be detained. One of the main issues with the legislation is how it is used by the Russian authorities to stymie opposition, independent media, and critical reporting of the Kremlin. The short-term and long-term implications of the legislation point to a country with a tightly regulated media and political landscape, little to no room for opposition, with ambiguously-defined legislation being used by the government to ensure minimal threats to its rule.
Many countries and international organizations, such as the United States and European Union member states, have criticized the legislation. In 2019, Human Rights Watch said that the legislation would “have a detrimental impact on the already restrictive environment for independent journalism in Russia.” In 2018, a Russian independent magazine, The New Times, was fined 338,000 US Dollars under the foreign agents legislation; the fine nearly forced the journal’s offices to close, according to NPR. Other independent media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America, have been the subject of the “foreign agent” designation in part due to their funding from US Congress. Jamie Dettmer of Voice of America explained that upon being asked who he worked for by a Russian individual, they said “Oh, we are enemies then.” Dettmer replied, “No. I am just a reporter.”
The legislation is supposed to “target media, NGOs, and individuals that receive funding from outside of Russia,” however, investigative reporters in Russia reporting on state corruption have also been labeled as foreign agents, RFE/RL reports. This demonstrates that it is not just outlets that receive outside funding that are being targeted, but also those that conduct investigative journalism or critical reporting of the Kremlin. For instance, Russian television channel Dozhd has been targeted by the law. According to CBC, Dozhd “has been sharply critical of Russian authorities’ crackdown on dissent and regularly carried live reports from opposition protests [including] the poisoning and the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most high-profile critic, and the criminal cases launched against Navalny’s allies.”
The list of entities designated as foreign agents continues to grow, and those seeking to appeal designation face low chances of success. One reason for the high number of media outlets and individuals being targeted is that the label is so broadly-defined. In August, the Russian Justice Ministry outlined the designation criteria, which includes “press tours funded by a foreign organization, money to travel to an international conference or to receive a reporting award they won, or if they receive money from relatives or friends abroad” according to spokesman Roman Tsyganov. The broad nature of the label allows for a lot of room for interpretation on the part of the authorities, which does not favor the entity being targeted. One way to allow greater success of appeal is to more clearly define the nature of “political activity” and compel the state to show concrete, unaltered proof of it. Otherwise, as has happened, the label will be applied arbitrarily and be used in ways that encourage abuse of power by governing leadership.
Media outlets that fail to comply with requirements, such as having to “label all of their content with an intrusive disclaimer,” face fines like that given to The New Times. In response, journalists have protested, even when under threat of arrest from Russian police. Farida Rustamova, a Dozhd journalist, explained to CBC that “I want to work and live freely in Russia. I want to have an opportunity to be a free journalist. I don’t want my colleagues to be arrested, searched, and labelled as an ‘enemy of the people’ or ‘agents’.” CBC also notes that the increased pressure on independent media and reporting comes “ahead of the Sept. 19 parliamentary vote, which is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his rule ahead of Russia’s 2024 presidential election.”
If the Kremlin continues the current trend of using the foreign agents label to target any opposition, investigative journalism, and individual journalists over their reporting, this will have several implications for the short-term and long-term outlook of the country. In the short-term, the continued use of the label in its current form will continue to stifle Kremlin opposition candidates, media outlets, and any form of outspoken criticism. Some will continue resisting the fines and warnings. RFE/RL has previously stated that they will not comply and have challenged the designation at the European Court of Human Rights. It has said that “Left unchecked, Russia’s campaign of imposing such severe punishments . . . will have a profound chilling effect on what is left of the country’s independent media.” This effect is already taking place, and it is allowing the Kremlin leadership to refine its strategies to maintain power in the 19 September elections, thus benefiting Putin and his allies.
Other short-term effects include the continued use of scare tactics, such as hefty fines, to ensure compliance with the designation. In neighboring Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko is doubling down on his decades-long rule of the country, there have been several raids at media centers and homes of journalists with the objective of detaining anyone critical of Lukashenko and allies. Similarly, in Russia, the apartment of news site The Insider’s chief-editor Roman Dobrokhotov was raided in late July, according to the Associated Press. The news site was already designated as a foreign agent at the time of the raid. If these tactics persist, they will greatly discourage open dialogue, transparency, and debate in the public sphere.
The long-term effects of the “foreign agents” legislation are more concerning for Russia. For instance, aside from the fact that there will be less independent reporting, those in power will hold a significant sway over political affairs, media regulation, social media monitoring against any form of dissent, and strict rules that journalists must adhere to. The current ambiguity of “political activity” as mentioned in the legislation means that any misstep or interaction with outside media makes one a potential target of fines or even detainment. In the upcoming elections there may be more “opposition” candidates that are in fact members of parties that are sub-branches of the ruling party, meant to create the illusion of competition in local, regional, and national elections.
Countries that see success in Russia’s model may also adapt similar tactics. Belarus’ Lukashenko has gone a step further and ordered journalists to be arrested along with anyone showing a slight hint of dissent. Poland’s leadership has also sought to increase its control over the media landscape. In mid-August, its lawmakers passed a bill widely seen as limiting media freedoms. While these countries do not have a foreign agent designation, they may consider Russia’s legislation a model they can use in their own countries. This may not apply to Belarus, given its already harsh crackdown on the media and independent reporting. Poland, on the other hand, has more at stake as it is a member of the European Union, meaning that any Polish “foreign agents”-style legislation would have major repercussions for its EU funding and support.
Eventually, many individuals who wish to pursue a career in the media or journalism will have to look outside Russia. Ranging from university graduates to those in the profession for years, the continued use of the “foreign agents” label will force many to leave the country if they want to pursue such careers. Otherwise they will be subject to strict monitoring from authorities, being made to be careful about engaging in “political activity,” and have the prospect of hefty fines or home searches looming in the background simply for the nature of their reporting.
There are already proposed solutions to this issue. Yeva Merkacheva, a member of the Kremlin Human Rights Council and a former journalist who now focuses on the rights of detainees, promised to “push for a change in the law, including a warning system that would alert journalists in advance of possible violations and a system of fines that would precede official inclusion on the list,” RFE/RL reports. Others propose to scrap the label completely.
The best path to ensuring a transparent media and journalism environment would be to completely abandon the use of the “foreign agent” designation, allowing for free independent reporting on Russian politics, domestic affairs, and other topics of importance for its people. If the Kremlin insists on maintaining the label, it is important that it specifies the nature of the label, the exact reasons one can be targeted, a concrete list of fines and penalties, and the adoption of the warning system as proposed by Merkacheva. However, for the very best interests of the country and its media, the “foreign agents” label must be abandoned.
The Kremlin must also remain open to dialogue with journalists, media groups, and those affected by the label to reach common ground. A complete repeal may not happen immediately, but as a start, the most restrictive provisions can be removed. Afterwards, cooperation and dialogue will be crucial to phase out the legislation to allow independent media and journalism to operate without fear of repercussions.