Mass media outlets as new foreign agents

Towards the end of 2017 Russia invented another type of foreign agents – mass media outlets by passing the law dated 25.11.2017 No 327-FZ.

On one hand side, the law provides that provisions of ‘foreign agent’ NGOs can be applied to the legal status of a mass media outlet in accordance with the procedure established by a competent federal executive body. No such procedure is established yet. This could mean that mass media outlets do not have to do anything until the executive body issues a specific regulation. On the other hand, the new law provides that a foreign mass media outlet functioning as a foreign agent has the same rights and obligations as a ‘foreign agent’ NGO. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that this provision in fact imposes the same obligations on mass media outlets as on ‘foreign agent’ NGOs. Therefore, in this article I will briefly outline the requirements that foreign agent NGOs have to meet.

First and perhaps the most difficult from the moral standpoint is the requirement to mark all NGO publications as originating from a “foreign agent”. A failure to mark materials (including website) could lead to obscene fines amounting up to 500 thousand rubles (circa 7 thousand USD). Technically speaking, each publication can trigger a separate fine. For instance, an organization publishes four articles on the website. The website does not inform that the organization was proclaimed a ‘foreign agent’. The organization can be fined up to 2 million rubles.

The second requirement for ‘foreign agent’ NGO is to do an audit once a year. The results of the auditing have to be submitted to the Ministry of Justice. The third requirement is to submit reports to the Ministry of Justice four times a year disclosing information about the NGO’s leaders, sources of revenues, activities and expenditures.

It is very probable that mass media outlets may be subject to some additional requirements. For instance, there is a new bill proposed just at the end of the fall Parliament session targeting foreign media outlets[1]. This bill did not pass in the fall legislative session but there are good chances that it will pass during the spring session.

According to this bill, a foreign mass media outlet that was labeled as a ‘foreign agent’ has to establish a Russian legal entity. Legal presence in Russia will make it easier for the authorities to enforce new rules and to fine the outlets. In case a foreign outlet fails to establish a Russian entity, online access to its publications can be blocked. In addition, this bill stipulates that Russian media resources while publishing materials originating from outlets with a ‘foreign agent’ status have to indicate that these materials are coming from a ‘foreign agent’ outlet.

Of course, all these requirements limit freedom of speech. Media outlets could challenge these restrictions in Russian courts. However, judging from the experience of NGOs fighting ‘foreign agent’ legislation, this recourse proved to be quite ineffective. As a result, Russian NGOs filed application to the European Court of Human Rights. On 22 March 2017 the Court communicated cases of 61 NGOs complaining about ‘foreign agent’ legislation.

Legal battles challenging ‘foreign agent’ legislation is quite exhausting and time consuming. In case an outlet decides to pursue them, Memorial Human Rights Center (which represents 18 NGOs in ‘foreign agent’ case before the European Court) will willingly assist in defending their rights in Russian courts and before the European Court of Human Rights (if necessary).

Marina Agaltsova