Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law bills that impose fines for violating a controversial law on "foreign agents" as well as other legislation relating to protests, such as the financing of rallies and disobedience of law enforcement.
According to the laws, signed by Putin Feb. 24, releasing information about so-called "foreign agents" and their materials without also indicating their status could lead to fines of up to 2,500 rubles ($34) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,720) for entities. The law applies regardless of whether the "foreign agent" in question is a mass media outlet or an individual.
The other laws signed by Putin the same day set fines for individuals found guilty of illegally financing a rally at up to 15,000 rubles ($200), while officials and organizations for such actions will be ordered to pay up to 30,000 rubles ($400) and 100,000 rubles ($1,345), respectively. Putin also signed a law that significantly increases fines for disobedience of police and security forces.
Russia’s "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 submit to audits.
Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media, including RFE/RL’s Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, as well as Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its “foreign agents” list and to impose restrictions on them.
Russian officials have said that amending the "foreign agents 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).
U.S. officials have said the action is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws differ and that Russia uses its "foreign agent" legislation to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas.
The Russian state media monitor Roskomnadzor last year adopted rules requiring listed media to mark all written materials with a lengthy notice in large text, all radio materials with an audio statement, and all video materials with a 15-second text declaration.
The agency has prepared hundreds of complaints against RFE/RL’s news websites. When they go through the court system, the fines levied could reach nearly $1 million.
RFE/RL has called the 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.”
Since early in Putin’s presidency, the Kremlin has steadily tightened the screws on independent media. The country is ranked 149th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders.