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Russia lawmakers vote in favor of labeling media 'foreign agents'

The Russian Duma has backed an amendment allowing media outlets to be designated as "foreign agents" if they receive funding from outside Russia. The move comes after Washington gave the same label to RT and Sputnik.

Russian deputies unanimously voted in support of a controversial foreign media amendment on Wednesday. The bill would give Russian authorities the ability to designate foreign media outlets, presumably including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle, as "foreign agents" and demand to see their sources of funding. 

No media outlets have been explicitly named in the document. The label would need to be approved on a case-by-case basis by the Russian Justice Ministry.

Russian officials described the measure as a tit-for-tat response to last week's move from Washington. Previously, the US Justice Department ordered Russia's foreign broadcaster RT, formerly Russia Today, and the Sputnik news agency to register as agents of a foreign government. Many US politicians accused the two Russian outlets of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

Read more: Twitter bans ads from RT and Sputnik citing electoral meddling

Berlin sharply criticized the move, saying it would be "completely unacceptable" for German and European media to suffer restrictions over the dispute between the US and Russia.

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Bill may be used 'once'

The Russian bill would allow the government to mirror the US demands, said the chairman of the Duma committee for information, Leonid Levin. Under the broadly phrased legislation, Moscow will be able to determine which outlets should be labeled as foreign agents.

"I would like to hope that it will only be used once and there will be no need for more retaliatory action," Levin said.

It was not immediately clear which steps would be taken towards foreign media outlets in Russia. The bill is based on the 2012 law that forced NGOs to adopt a "foreign agent" label if they receive funding from abroad. Since then, they are requested to feature the label on their paperwork, statements and other material. They are also subject to suprise raids and intensive checks, and they must report where they get their money from and how they spend it.

However, the Duma's deputy chairman, Pyotr Tolstoy, said that the potential law would not apply to Russian media outlets that receive partial funding from outside the country's borders.

Read more: Russian NGOs object to 'foreign agents' label

Putin's approval required

With all 414 lawmakers present on Wednesday voting in favor of the amendment, the bill was officially endorsed by the 450-seat parliament. Before going into law, however, it also needs to be endorsed by the Russian Federation Council and approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Wednesday, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was premature to discuss the perceived "harshness" of the law.

"We still have not seen the law in practice, so it would be utterly incorrect to draw conclusions about it being more or less harsh."

Peskov also sidestepped a reporter's question about Putin possibly demanding changes in the wording of the amendment.

"I can't tell you that, let's wait for the moment when it is presented for the president to sign," he said.

Previously, Putin commented that the proposed law "might be a little too harsh."

dj/rc (AFP, Interfax, AP, Reuters)

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