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Russian senators pass 'foreign agent' media law, send to Vladimir Putin to sign

Once signed by President Vladimir Putin, the law would require foreign-funded media in Russia to register as foreign agents. It comes in response to the US requiring Kremlin-backed media to register as foreign agents.

Russia's upper house of parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill on Wednesday that would require foreign-funded media operating in the country to register as foreign agents.

The legislation, which was passed last week by the lower house, or Duma, will come into force once it is signed by President Vladimir Putin.

The move is a direct response to Washington's decision this month to require Kremlin-backed RT, formerly Russia Today, to register as a foreign agent in the United States.

Watch video 26:41

Media and civil society in Russia

US intelligence and top officials have accused RT and Sputnik news agency, both backed by Moscow, of spreading "fake news" and propaganda to interfere in domestic politics, including last year's election.

The US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires persons acting in a "political or quasi-political capacity" for foreign interests to disclose information, funding and activities.

Russia has slammed the US action as hypocrisy and an assault on freedom of the press.

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The Russia law, once approved, would apply to the US government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It may also impact private broadcasters such as CNN.

It would put American and other foreign media under intense scrutiny, including on financing and staff.

Subject to abuse

In 2012, Russia passed a controversial law that requires foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to register as foreign agents. The law put many NGOs under additional pressure and forced some to cease operations.

Critics say that similar laws on foreign media in Russia may force them to shutter or restrict coverage.

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"The US government's misguided decision to request for RT to register under FARA gave the Kremlin a platform to retaliate, and they have done so with a full throttle attack on media freedom," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But sadly, the bill will not simply hurt foreign media, but worse, unjustifiably limit Russian citizens' right to access information and ideas."

The Kremlin's council for human rights opposed the bill, saying that it was vaguely worded and subject to potential abuse targeting media. 

"Any foreign media could be labeled a foreign agent quite arbitrarily by the justice ministry of the Russian Federation," the council said in a statement Monday.

Last month, social media giant Twitter took the unprecedented step of banning RT and Sputnik advertisements in response to allegations they were part of a Russian effort to spread misinformation during the 2016 US election.

Russia has also threatened to retaliate over that decision.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said earlier this year that it would focus on countering "aggressive Russian pressure and disinformation" by providing "factual information and alternatives" to Russian speakers.

cw/rs (AFP, dpa) 

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