“Foreign agents” in Russia may lose right to run media outlets

“Foreign agents” in Russia may lose right to run media outlets
Headquarters of the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications in the Central Telegraph Building, Moscow (Image: S. Barichev under a CC licence)

21 August 2015

The Russian Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications has proposed that NGOs labelled as “foreign agents” be banned from launching and registering media outlets.

The proposal was announced on a government-run website for the publishing of draft laws. The term “foreign agent” refers to any organisations that receive funding from abroad and are engaged in “political activity”.

There are around 20 existing media outlets that are owned by NGOs registered as “foreign agents,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora human rights association,“Passing the bill would mean these media outlets losing their registration. This law will result in the liquidation of dozens of media outlets.”

Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of Golos, an elections watchdog in the process of getting its “foreign agent” status cancelled, believes that the media crackdown is being carried out in anticipation of the 2016 State Duma elections. Golos runs the newspaper Grazhdansky Golos (Civic Voice), and thus risks closure if it remains a “foreign agent”.

According to Ilya Shablinsky, a member of the presidential Human Rights Council, banning “foreign agents” from owning media outlets is a direct violation of a Constitutional Court ruling of 2014, according to which being labeled a “foreign agent” should not infringe on the rights of an organisation.

“This is very bad: we have more than 50 organisations on the list [of 'foreign agents'], and for a lot of them, running media outlets is their main area of activity,” Mr Shablinsky said.

Deputy Communications Minister Alexei Volin disagreed, however, stating that the proposal doesn't conflict with any laws, but in fact brings the law that regulates mass media in line with other legislation. In addition, he argued, the proposal conforms to an existing regulation that restricts foreign ownership of media outlets.

“We don't recommend having 'foreign agents' among the owners of your media, go find some decent people [instead],” Mr Volin suggested, adding that “foreign agents” should not be allowed to own even 20% of a media outlet.

The proposal forms part of a larger bill, which recommends numerous other restrictions on the registration process for Russian media. If the bill is passed, names of countries will not be allowed to be used in media names without permission from the Ministry of Justice, whilst outlet names will also be checked for “morality”.

This development forms part of a wider crackdown on “foreign agents”, several of which stated that they would close this summer after receiving large fines and having to give up their foreign financing.