Russia’s amendment to “foreign agents” law poses major new restrictions to the work of human rights defenders
On 2 December 2019 the President of the Russian Federation signed into law two bills that allow the authorities to recognise individuals disseminating information to an “unlimited number of people” and receiving funding from abroad as “foreign agents”. The law, “On Amendments to the Russian Federation Law on the Media” and the Federal Law, “On Information, Information Technologies and the Protection of Information” effectively extend the 2012 “Foreign Agents” Law to individuals. The Federal Law was adopted by the State Duma on 21 November 2019 and approved by the Federation Council on 25 November 2019.
The new legislation gives the Ministry of Justice the power to recognise as "foreign agents" any individual who receives any amount of foreign funding and disseminates information for an “unlimited number of people”, and to place them on the government’s register of "foreign agents". The Ministry of Justice in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will also maintain a register of media that are deemed to be foreign agents. According to the new law, citizens recognised as "foreign agents" will have to mark all their publications, including their social media posts, with a special "foreign agents" label. They will also be required to register as legal persons and submit reports of their spending to the Ministry of Justice. All "foreign agents" will be required to submit tax reports once a quarter, reports on activities once every six months and undergo an annual audit. According to article 19.34 of the Code of Administrative Offences, sanctions for violation of the law amount to 500 000 RUB (approx. 7000 EUR).
The criteria for defining an individual as a "foreign agent" are extremely broad and can potentially be applied not only to bloggers and journalists, but also to ordinary social media users, students who receive foreign stipends for their studies, or people who sell goods abroad on the internet. As the Ministry of Justice will not be able to place all such individuals on the register of "foreign agents", the law will most likely be applied selectively, which will also violate the constitutional right to equality before the law.
Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned by the extension of the "foreign agents" law to individuals, as it puts individual human rights defenders at risk and further hampers their peaceful and legitimate human rights work. With the two previous laws targeting foreign organisations—the 2012 "foreign agents" law and the 2015 “undesirable organizations” law—the new law will further aggravate the already difficult situation of independent civil society by increasing pressure on individual journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders.