PRAGUE—The Russian Parliament held a rushed vote on Wednesday, when all 411 deputies. who attended the meeting approved new legislation that would require every foreign media organization working in Russia to register as a “foreign agent.” Once the legislation is considered by the Russian senate and signed by President Vladimir Putin, as expected, it will take effect. Probably that will be as soon as next week.
Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called the law “a symmetrical answer” to a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice on November 13 requiring the Kremlin-backed television station RT America to register as a “foreign agent.”
A few hours after the Duma vote, the newsroom of Current Time TV in Prague read an official warning note from the Russian Ministry of Justice: “The activity of Current Time contains signs of a foreign agent’s functions, in this regard the activity of your organization can be subjected to limitations stipulated by Russian legislation.”
Current Time is a daily Russian-language TV news program that was created by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty ( RFL/RL) in 2014 in partnership with the Voice of America. They are private nonprofit organizations funded by the U.S. Congress.
Timur Olevsky, an editor and presenter at Current Time, said that the new legislation could be dangerous for reporters employed by the TV program in Russia.
“According to this law our administrators would have to present Russian authorities with a lot of paperwork; if a media group recognized as a ‘foreign agent’ does not fit the requirements, its employees can go to jail for up to three years,” Olevsky told The Daily Beast.
During the parliamentary session on Wednesday, Chairman of the State Duma Volodin, who coordinates state ideology in Russia, declared: “Nobody can treat our mass media in such a way, and if a foreign state makes such decisions, we have to respond.”
When reporters asked Volodin about criteria and mechanisms of the legislation, he answered that the existing foreign agent law, which previously targeted independent NGOs with foreign funding, would now be applied to foreign media. The Russian Ministry of Justice would decide which media to recognize as a “foreign agent.”
A report by U.S. intelligence agencies in January concluded that RT is part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” and that it contributed to the Kremlin’s campaign to interfere with last year’s presidential election in favor of Republican Party candidate Donald Trump.
Subsequently, the Justice Department decided that RT should register in accordance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law that was adopted during World War II to prevent the spread of pro-Nazi propaganda in the U.S.
“Last month, as soon as Washington approached RT, we received the first warning from Moscow in what they call a ‘mirror’ or ‘a retaliatory’ response to every measure taken against RT,” Olevsky explained to The Daily Beast in an interview in the Current Time newsroom, but “there is a big difference between RT and Current Time,” he said. “Unlike RT, we have never been allowed to broadcast on cable TV in Russia.”
The Kremlin’s view of “symmetry” is based on the notion that the United States set out to undermine the current government of Russia and leaders friendly to it in former Soviet republics, and NGOs and media that expose Kremlin deceptions or failings are most likely part of that effort.
“The American intelligence services are a machine that is always working, constantly making up anti-Russian cases,” Lt. Gen. Leonid Reshetnikov, who headed the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies until earlier this year, and clearly believes the Cold War never ended, told The Daily Beast in an interview earlier this week.
Journalists covering Russia news know only too well the mechanisms that have been applied to NGOs.
In 2013, Russia’s prosecutors conducted massive inspections of more than 300 non-governmental organizations across the country to uncover any signs of “political activity” and foreign funding received by the organizations.
“The legislation against foreign media is a disproportional response,” Svetlana Gannushkina, former member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, a Kremlin committee, told The Daily Beast. “It will allow the Kremlin to sweep across the entire field of foreign media working in Russia, labeling dozens as ‘foreign agents,’ as they have done to pretty much all independent NGOs.”
Today Russia has at least 133 NGOs officially recognized as “foreign agents,” including Gannushkina’s Civic Assistance Committee, a group of professional human rights defenders providing legal assistance to refugees and immigrants across Russia.
A veteran human rights defender and a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin’s policies, Gannushkina said she was not surprised to see that the Kremlin was now going after foreign media. “Of course they want to make life a bureaucratic hell and put pressure on journalists, as NGOs and the media are the only people analyzing violations by Russian leadership,” Gannushkina said.
“My NGO has been working as ‘foreign agent’ for years now, although we are all Russian citizens,” Gannushkina said. “The legislation about media is even more ridiculous and it is not about media involved in political activity, working on state funding–the Kremlin wants to label all independent foreign media groups and journalists, so everybody would have tough time.”
The warning letters from Russia’s Ministry of Justice addressed to both Current Time and Radio Liberty on Wednesday did not describe any specific “limitations” on the media’s activity.
Current Time’s audience counts several million people who have been watching the program’s news both on the Internet and on Satellite TV.
The new legislation brought as sense of déjà vu to veterans at Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. The journalists remembered the years of the Cold War, when they managed to transmit uncensored news to their audience behind the Iron Curtain in the USSR. Many Russian families have memories, too, of hours spent by the radio, trying to catch the wave and listen to the free news, in spite of the Soviet special services trying to block the broadcast.
Bits of information got through to Soviet radio listeners even under Stalin, in spite of long-distance jamming facilities. Thousands of Soviet people listened to Liberty’s coverage of political and cultural life in free countries.
Through the scratchy sounds of KGB jamming, people living under Soviet rule could learn about dissident Andrey Sakharov’s hunger strike in his exile in the city of Gorky, now called Nizhny Novgorod. Famous dissident writers, poets and musicians, including Sergei Dovlatov, Josif Brodsky, Vasilij Aksenov, and Mikhail Baryshnikov were regular narrators at the studio of Radio Liberty in New York–their voices breaking through to the other side of the Iron Curtain.
After the Berlin Wall fell, both Boris Yeltsin and Vaclav Havel spoke about the important role that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty played to end the Cold War.
But it looks like the warriors are back, putting pressure on media, once again.
"Our job is to cover news in Russia, and we'll continue to do it; we continue covering news in Azerbaijan and in Uzbekistan, where we lost our bureaus,” Current Time director Daisy Sindelar told The Daily Beast. "The Russian government has come one step closer to labeling us, but at this point we cannot speculate about what will happen next inside Russia.”
“We’ll continue to broadcast and report stories on the ground in Russia, even if we are recognized ‘foreign agents,’” Current Time editor Olevsky told The Daily Beast. “But it would be a shame to become a program working in the underground, like in Soviet times.”