Ten Years of Foreign Agents Law in Russia: Evolution of a Press Freedom Crackdown
Russia’s now notorious Foreign Agents Law – a key tool for repressing independent media – first emerged a decade ago, in July 2012. Its development provides a unique perspective to track the expansion of authoritarian control in the country. Long abused by the government, the law has helped spark self-censorship and a mass exodus of domestic and international media out of Russia, as well as forcing the remaining independent media into hiding.
On June 28, 2022, the state-owned Russian Center for Public Opinion Research published the results of its survey about what ordinary Russian citizens associated with the term “foreign agent,” a status now applied to nearly all members of the independent media. 61% of respondents indicated that the term had negative connotations, while only 2% saw it in a positive light (11% found no association with the term and 24 could not answer).
Among the negative connotations, 14% of respondents associate it with the word “spy”, 7% with “traitor of Russia” and 6% with the end of the Stalin era “enemy of the people”.
Despite its origins, the poll reveals a key objective of the foreign agent label. “The main objective of the law is the same as when it was created: it is to silence civil society actors such as NGOs and members of the media and to make their lives much more complicated” , said Daria Korolenko, lawyer for the independent Russian association Human Human Rights. rights of the media project OVD-Info, in an interview with the IPI. Ten years later, his goal has not changed.
A worrying development
The origins of the law and its continued expansion were tied to Kremlin fears of growing national dissent. Its evolution both before and after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine provides a timeline of the growing censorship and restriction of press freedom that accompanied the increasingly aggressive stance of the Kremlin regime, both in the country and abroad. As Aleksei Obuhov, editor of the independent newspaper SOTA, told IPI: “Internal repressions have occurred alongside preparations for external aggression.”
As part of the larger protests against the electoral fraud that Russia had experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union, the law on foreign agents was adopted for the first time in 2012. At the time, it targeted only foreign-funded non-commercial organizations that the authorities considered to be engaging in political activities. The law required these entities to register as foreign agents and to disclose their status in all online publications.
It has proven devastating for independent NGOs. Targeting major human rights NGOs Memorial and its subsidiaries from 2014 to 2016 illustrated the abusive nature of the law. As with most other organizations designated as foreign agents, Memorial’s criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and domestic repression had placed it in the crosshairs of the authorities.
From 2012 to 2016, 170 organizations were labeled as foreign agents, as reported DVO Info.
By deliberately leaving the definition of political activities broad, the authorities ensured the law’s applicability to a wide range of dissent, paving the way for its future expansion. “All repressive Russian laws are formulated in a very vague way, the authorities can apply them as they wish,” said Andrei Shary, director of the Russian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), in an interview with IPI. “It means that in practice you don’t know what you have to do. It creates an atmosphere of fear.
In 2017, amid huge anti-corruption protests organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the law was expanded to include media. Once listed, outlets became the subject of immense financial pressure and legal control. In addition to requiring media organizations to submit detailed financial documentation to authorities on a quarterly basis, the etiquette has led to reduced cooperation with government institutions, civil society organizations and others fearful of being associated with a “foreign agent”.
Designation as a foreign agent has become synonymous with label that the targeted media were required to include in their publications: “This message (material) was created and (or) disseminated by a foreign media organization, performing the functions of a foreign agent, and (or) a Russian legal personality , fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent”.
While the law initially targeted foreign media funded by foreign governments, such as RFE/RL, its gradual expansion soon began to threaten independent media in general, including national media. The concept of receiving funding from abroad, apparently a key prerequisite for listing, has been watered down to a catch-all. Participating in a press tour or an international conference paid for by a foreign organization, or even receiving money from a relative or friend abroad, was enough to be declared foreign agent.
At the end of 2019, the adoption of an amendment allowed natural persons, and not only legal persons, to be included in the list of media organizations acting as foreign agents. Journalists Liudmila Savitskaya, Sergey Markelov and Denis Kamalyagin were among the first to be included in the listing. All three had collaborated with RFE/RL. Following the expansion of the law, many were afraid to work with outlets qualified as foreign agents.
Following the 2021 protests against Navalny’s imprisonment, the law was again extended. Any outlet that republishes information created by foreign agents without disclosing their status could be fined.
The expansion accompanied the biggest media crackdown in decades. Top Russian Independent Outlets such as Meduza, Mediazona and Republic, as well as the country’s largest independent online broadcaster, Dozhd, have been appointed as foreign agents. OVD-info was also placed on the list, subject to immense administrative scrutiny. In an interview with IPI Last yearMeduza’s founder and CEO, Galina Timchenko, said “even a simple interview or comment could get you declared a foreign agent.”
There could be no longer any doubt: the Foreign Agents Act was not intended to regulate foreign funding – it was, and remains, a tool of arbitrary repression of independent media
End of 2021, approximately 1,500 activists and journalists had been forced to flee the country. More 100 legal and natural persons had been designated as media organizations acting as foreign agents. Those who remained were often forced to censor themselves simply to continue their operations.
The invasion of Ukraine
The onset of large-scale hostilities in Ukraine revealed the effects of the law and other forms of media censorship that accompanied it. Currently, the Russian media space was completely dominated by pro-government media.
“The country had no more problems (there was no one to talk about it anymore) and minds started to turn to foreign victories,” Obuhov said. “The start of the war, in itself, caused the emergence of wartime censorship (the truth only coming from the Ministry of Defense and Putin). Thus, lies gave birth to war, and war itself gave birth to new lies.
Said wartime controls paved the way for the most recent expansion of the law, whereby the lists of media and non-commercial organizations, as well as persons acting as foreign agents, were combined into a single common database.
The new expansion removed all ostensible restrictions on the law, long abused by authorities anyway. Alleged foreign funding is no longer necessary, simply being subject to “foreign influence” can now land someone on the list.
“Authorities were happy with Navalny for a while, now they’re going after everyone,” Shary said. “They want everyone to feel insecure and threatened, and from that point of view the legislation for foreign agents is almost perfect. I know this from personal experience, because it is difficult for us to find collaborators in Russia. We are not quoted by the local media because no one wants to meddle with foreign agents.
As Korolenko pointed out, while 70 people have been recognized as foreign agents in 2021, since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, another 50 people have been placed on the list. “Anyone who talks about the war is likely to be branded a foreign agent,” she said.
The slow strangulation of press freedom
The Foreign Agents Act is now firmly entrenched in the censorship infrastructure available to the Russian government, but in many ways its evolution points to the origins of many other authoritarian controls. As with most of the Kremlin’s repressive measures, although initially limited in scope, the law was gradually broadened through legal changes and arbitrary enforcement whenever those in power felt threatened.
The ten years since 2012 have seen a return to Soviet-style controls on press freedom. Accompanied by an increase in pro-government propaganda and an increasingly aggressive stance abroad, the evolution of foreign agent law in many ways mirrored the development of Russia’s authoritarian regime.