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RFE/RL's Russian Bank Accounts Frozen Following Bailiffs' Visit to Moscow Bureau

FILE - The Czech headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague, Jan. 15, 2010.

RFE/RL's bank accounts in Russia have been frozen following a visit by court bailiffs to the U.S. agency's Moscow bureau.

The move came after agents of the Federal Court Bailiffs Service on May 14 initiated enforcement proceedings against RFE/RL's Russian branch over unpaid fines accrued because of violations of Russia's controversial "foreign agent" laws.

The bailiffs service sent RFE/RL a court resolution authorizing it to search for the organization's bank accounts and to freeze them.

RFE/RL's Moscow-based bank was ordered by the bailiffs service to seize the agency's accounts in order to provide payment for the unpaid fines of 5 million rubles ($68,000).

The enforcement proceeding pertains to 10 protocols that were confirmed in court and for which the two-month payment period has expired.

Earlier Friday, bailiffs spent about two hours in RFE/RL's Moscow bureau and initiated an inventory of equipment there. They did not interfere with work at the bureau or detain anyone.

Since the beginning of the year, the state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor has presented to courts about 520 protocols concerning violations of the law by the eight RFE/RL projects that have been included on the Justice Ministry's register of "foreign agent" mass media.

Labeling requirement rejected

RFE/RL rejects the "foreign agent" designation and has refused to comply with onerous Roskomnadzor requirements that each published or broadcast story include prominent labeling. RFE/RL is appealing the protocols, but Russian courts have so far rejected more than 250 appeals.

In total, the fines against the broadcaster amount to about 70 million rubles ($950,000).

RFE/RL has asked the European Court of Human Rights to block Russia from enforcing the fines, which the company says are aimed at muzzling independent media.

During a press briefing Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova rejected charges by U.S. officials that Moscow's actions against RFE/RL "violated the rights of journalists."

The statements, she said, "prove once again the real role of RFE/RL as mouthpieces for U.S. government propaganda."

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly refuted Zakharova's statements, saying the company will continue to fight "these attempts by the Kremlin to censor uncomfortable truths."

"RFE/RL's journalists in Russia are patriotic Russian nationals — not Americans," he said. "They provide independent news and information so their fellow citizens do not 'get used to untruth and … live in lies,' as one of these journalists recently put it.

"We will not be silenced, and we will not abandon our Russian audience."

Review of protocols reported

Also Thursday, the Russian state news agency Tass reported that a Moscow court had suspended 140 of the protocols against RFE/RL and sent them back to a lower court for review. RFE/RL has not been officially informed of such a decision.

Russia's so-called "foreign agent" legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as "foreign agents," and to submit to audits. Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media.

In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL's Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time on the list.

Russian officials have said that amending the "foreign agent law" to include mass media in 2017 was a "symmetrical response" to the U.S. requirement that Russia's state-funded channel RT register under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

RFE/RL has called the Roskomnadzor fines "a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation," while the U.S. State Department has described them as "intolerable."

Human Rights Watch has described the "foreign agent" legislation as "restrictive" and intended "to demonize independent groups."

RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Each week, nearly 7 million people access RFE/RL's news portals in Russia.