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Press FreedomRussian Federation

Russia's sweeping foreign agent law

February 3, 2022

From media outlets, punk activists and journalists, to human rights defenders and even ordinary citizens — dozens of people have been ensnared by Russia's law on foreign agents. What exactly does the legislation entail?

A crowd of people protesting
Supporters of Memorial, one of Russia's oldest rights groups that was declared a foreign agent, last DecemberImage: Gavriil Grigorov/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Russia's foreign agent law dates back to 2012 when it originally applied to non-governmental organizations receiving funds and grants from abroad.

In December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed new legislation that expanded the legal definition of who can be considered a foreign agent.

It now includes any private individual or group who receives any amount of foreign funding, whether from foreign governments, organizations or even citizens, and publishes "printed, audio, audio visual or other reports and materials."

A chilling effect

Once authorities slap a "foreign agent" tag on people or organizations, they are required to label anything they publish  — even a social media post  — with a disclaimer indicating their status as a foreign agent.

They are also required to file regular financial statements and reports on their activities every six months with the government, and undergo annual audits.

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The term "foreign agent" carries negative Soviet-era connotations in Russia, suggestive of spying. It was used by the Soviets for political dissidents.

The label also deters advertisers who hesitate at the possibility of being associated with a "foreign agent," or merely even an individual or entity viewed unfavorably in the eyes of the Kremlin.

Critics say Russian authorities use the legislation to crack down on media outlets, activists, opposition groups and individuals who are critical of the Kremlin. 

A policeman stands next to a woman holding a placard
Critics say Russia has used the law to silence dissenting voicesImage: Denis Kaminev/AP Photo/picture alliance

Civil society groups have voiced concern that it is having a chilling effect on individual journalists and human rights defenders and is stifling dissent.

The Kremlin has denied the foreign agent legislation amounts to censorship and President Putin has said the law is needed to protect Russia from foreign meddling.

Who's on the list?

Last December, two members ofpunk activist group Pussy Riot were listed as "foreign agents"by the Russian government. The feminist collective group are known for their music and activism highly critical of President Putin and the Russian state.

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of Pussy Riot, was added to the foreign agents list last yearImage: Agustin Marcarian/REUTERS

Also in December,Russian authorities shuttered one of the country's oldest human rights groups, Memorial Human Rights Center  for failing to mark a number of social media posts with its official status as a "foreign agent."

Last November, Ivan Pavlov, a top human rights lawyer who defended the Anti-Corruption Foundation ofjailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny, was added to the list.

The Russian Justice Ministry also branded journalist and satirist Viktor Shenderovich, best known for a political caricature puppet show aired in the 1990s, as a "foreign agent."

Art collector Marat Gelman and five others also found their names on the list, which has grown from 17 in late 2020 to its current number: 115.

On Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it planned to initiate a procedure to label Deutsche Welle a foreign media outlet performing the functions of a "foreign agent."

The announcement came after the Moscow studio of Germany's international broadcaster,   was shut down by the Russian government.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer