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Russian Lawmakers Vote to Bar Access to VOA, RFE/RL Journalists

Russian lawmakers vote at the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament in Moscow, Nov. 15, 2017.
Russian lawmakers vote at the State Duma, the Lower House of the Russian Parliament in Moscow, Nov. 15, 2017.

Russia's lower house of parliament voted Wednesday to bar access to journalists from VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The decision by the State Duma comes a day after the Russian justice ministry designated nine media outlets funded by the U.S. government as "foreign agents."

Tuesday's designation forces the U.S. news outlets to adhere to the same requirements that are applied to foreign-funded non-governmental organizations under a 2012 law. The news outlets, in any information they publish or broadcast to Russian audiences, would be required to mention their designation as a "foreign agent."

They would be required to submit regular reports on their funding, their objectives, how they spend their money and who their managers are.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Heather Nauert, told reporters Tuesday that the move is "wrong" and added that the State Department is concerned that the new status might result in harassment of U.S. journalists.

Moscow's action Tuesday came in retaliation to Washington's move last month forcing a U.S.-based affiliate of Kremlin-funded RT, formerly known as Russia Today, to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, also known as "FARA." The act requires people acting as agents of foreign governments to publicly disclose their relationship.

Last week, the committee of journalists that issues credentials for media access to cover the U.S. Congress withdrew accreditation for RT, citing the FARA registration. Russian officials have called the new legislation, passed on Wednesday, a "symmetrical response" to what they describe as U.S. pressure on Russian media

Responding to Russia's move Tuesday, VOA Director Amanda Bennett said the Russian Ministry of Justice has indicated the new designation will involve more "limitations" on the work of VOA in Russia.

"So far, the full nature of these limitations is unknown. We will study carefully all communications from the ministry and other official Russian organizations," Bennett said. "At the same time, we remain committed to continuing to serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news to our Russian-speaking audiences."

VOA's digital, TV and radio news and information reports are carried in more than 40 languages around the world and weekly reach more than 236 million people.

RFE/RL president Tom Kent, in his reaction to the development, vowed that the network remains "committed to continuing our journalistic work, in the interests of providing accurate and objective news to our Russian-speaking audiences."

Radio Free Europe's journalists report news in 23 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. Five of its affiliates in Russia provide news on Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, Siberia, the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region, provincial Russia and the mostly Muslim region of Tatarstan. It also has an online TV station and a news portal that fact-checks the statements of Russian officials.

In an interview with VOA, Congressman Eliot Engel, a ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called the move "ridiculous" but added, "that's typical for a totalitarian state with a totalitarian leader." He said democracy and free speech are "alien concepts" to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin signed a law in November empowering the government to designate media outlets receiving funding from abroad as "foreign agents" and impose sanctions against them.

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    The Voice of America provides news and information in more than 40 languages to an estimated weekly audience of over 326 million people. Stories with the VOA News byline are the work of multiple VOA journalists and may contain information from wire service reports.