Putin ends 2020 by tightening legal restrictions on press and individual freedoms

Moscow Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a package of controversial new laws that expand the government’s powers to label individuals and organizations as ‘foreign agents’, and impose a series of new restrictions on media organizations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting outside Moscow
The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, chairs a joint meeting of the country’s Council of State and the Council for Strategic Development and National Projects via a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo State House outside Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2020 .

Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin

The new laws expand the ‘foreign agent’ legislation adopted in 2012, which allowed authorities to apply the label to human rights groups and other organizations receiving funding from outside Russia. This has led to the closure of a number of prominent non-governmental organizations’ Russian offices, court proceedings and fines over the past few years. The legislation was updated last year to apply it to individuals, including journalists and bloggers.

The amendments signed by the president on Wednesday broaden the parameters under which a person or entity can be officially considered a ‘foreign agent’ in Russia, a term that carries negative connotations, dating back to the Cold War period.

“Foreign agents”

By law, Russian or foreign nationals receiving foreign aid and political activities “in the interest of a foreign state” must register as foreign agents.

Critics of the legislation point out that the legal definition of ‘political activity’ is extremely broad, including the monitoring of elections, opinions on state policy – including via comments on social media – and participation in rallies.

The definition gives authorities the opportunity to use the law against almost any vote of disagreement before next year’s parliamentary elections.

Amnesty International condemned the bill last month and warned that it would mark a new witch hunt in Russia.

“This exposes the Russian government’s conviction that civil society is a destructive ‘agent of the West’ aimed at destabilizing the government,” said Russian researcher Natalia Prilutskaya of Amnesty International. society has already suffered financially from starvation and many organizations have been forced to close. Now they are further demonizing individual activists. “

Under the extended law, foreign journalists can be added to the official list of foreign agents if government officials decide that they have done something “incompatible with the professional activities of a journalist.”

‘Foreign agents’ are subject to restrictions, including the provision of financial reports on their activities and the identification of themselves in publications in Russia. A separate bill signed by Putin on Wednesday imposes fines ranging from fines to five years in prison for designated foreign agents who fail to register or report their activities.

Legislator Vasily Piskarev, a co-sponsor of the bill, defends the initiative and insists on the need to protect “the sovereignty of the Russian Federation and the prevention of interference in the internal affairs of our state”.

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Earlier this week, the Ministry of Justice assisted a prominent support organization Russian victims of domestic violence, Nasiliu.Net, on his list of “foreign agents”, causing outrage among rights activists. The ministry also added five people, including veteran rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, 79, a longtime critic of Putin, to his list of foreign agents in the media, along with four others, including a Radio Free Europe journalist. / Radio Liberty.

Limit the press and everyone else

Putin ended the year by signing dozens of bills on Wednesday, many of which are expected to further consolidate his rule. One of them gives Russian regulators the power to completely or partially block internet platforms that discriminate against “state media”.

Supporters of the law have cited complaints from state-cited media about the treatment of prejudice by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Twitter currently calls some Russian media ‘state-affiliated media’, which has been criticized by officials in Moscow. YouTube has blocked several pro-Kremlin channels this year, a move that Russian authorities have called “censorship”.

The authors of the bill said that it is aimed at foreign social networks, but it can also be used against Russian platforms.

Another law passed by the president prohibits holding political rallies near emergency services buildings, such as police stations or buildings belonging to intelligence agencies.

Sharing personal data or information about the work of intelligence officers or law enforcement agencies is now a criminal offense – an initiative seen in response to recent media investigations led by the Bellingcat organization, which used leaked data to identify the names, photos and telephone numbers of FSB officers allegedly involved in the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.