The Russian State Duma held its third and final hearing on November 15th for the Foreign Agent Bill, which will expand the original doctrine to include foreign funded mass media outlets. The bill, which was originally drafted in 2012, initially required that foreign NGOs operating in Russia must register as a foreign agent. The Russian change in policy occurred in the wake of the United States requiring Russian Today (RT) to register under the Foreign Agent Resignation Act (FARA). Expanding the original Foreign Agent Bill’s legislation further tightens Russia’s already strict press freedom while retaliating against the US’s classification of RT as a foreign agent.
Russia desires control the flow of information into the country by enacting the Foreign Agent Bill against foreign media outlets. According to the bill, foreign media agents are those who “receive monetary funds, other property from foreign states, government agencies, foreign-based and international organization, foreign citizens, and persons without citizenship or any other persons acting on behalf of foreign citizens and organization,” which would cover nearly all foreign media in Russia. Although the legislation is broad, it enables the Russian Justice of Ministry to pick and choose which media stations fall into the category of “foreign agent.” Many American based companies, such as Voices for America, Radio Liberty and CNN, feel threatened by the legislation by how their organizations have been directly targeted by the law. Though many rights groups view the legislation as a tool to shut down critical voices in Russia, Maria Zakharova, the Spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, stated “we [The Kremlin] have received so many appeals form our citizens demanding that we do something about American media outlets,” highlighting how the Kremlin claims that even the Russia’s citizens support limiting American news sources. Whether or not Russians truly desire increased limitations on their media sources, it is true that the legislation’s goal was to attack American media sources after RT was registered as a foreign agent in the US.
The US required RT to register as a foreign agent by November 13th unless the organization wanted its accounts frozen and the head of the newspaper arrested. The classification of RT as a foreign agent occurred after the newspaper had been accused of meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. RT did reported on the US election, but often veered towards conspiracy theories and published false information about the candidates. Similarly, twitter banned RT ads from its site after conducting its own investigation and coming to the same conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community that RT did influence the elections. The American Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) demands production of documents and testimonies to ensure compliance with American law. It also requires that foreign organizations, including NGOs and media outlets, declare their full details of their finances, funding, and staffing under FARA. The bill also limits and reviews the type of media the organizations produces. In retaliation to, in the words of Tolstoy, “infringing upon Russian journalist freedom of action and expression,” Russia produced a “mirror” legislation to fight back against the Americans. However, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) views the Russian legislation in a different light. The Senator denounces the Russian law stating that there “is [now] equivalence between RT and networks such as BBC and CNN, whose journalist seek the truth, debunk lies, and hold governments accountable. RT’s propagandists debunk the truth, spread lies, and seek to undermine democratic governments in order to further Vladimir Putin’s agenda.” The US and Russia have entered into a press war by how each state required the other to register as a foreign agent.
Within a couple of days, the US and Russia have entered a media-war in which the goal is to place a much restriction on the other’s media as possible. The limitations the U.S put on RT labeling it a “foreign agent” ultimately backfired in how the Kremlin gave itself the power to do the same for American media stations in Russia. Amnesty International commented on the Russian legislation stating that “this legislation strikes a serious blow to what was already a fairly desperate situation for press freedom in Russia…. The Kremlin has been tirelessly building a media echo chamber that shuts out critical voices,” which highlight how the international community views Russia’s bill as a way for the Kremlin to extend its control over the influx of foreign ideas into the country. Tensions between the U.S and Russian continue to rise after the US intelligence community revealed the Russia did interfere with the US election, and the new foreign agent bill only heighten those pre-existing tensions. The Russian’s expansion of the foreign agent bill highlights the Kremlin’s desire to retaliate against US’s media restrictions while consolidating Russia’s media exposure to ensure no foreign ideas infiltrate the country.