Russian law on “foreign agents” bares its teeth with first court charges
Piotr Manyakhin, a Novosibirsk-based reporter for the investigative newspaper Proyekt, was named a “foreign agent” by the Russian government in July. He recently filed his first mandatory financial accounting, a 45-page report that he said cost him a lot of time and aggravation.
“It’s basically an accounting of my expenses,” he told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE / RL in cooperation with VOA. “Let’s say I walked into a store and bought some bread and some meat. I have to report to the Department of Justice, and I have to explain where the money I used to buy bread comes from and where the money I used to buy meat comes from… C that is, you have to remember how each ruble ended up in your account. “
If a report is found to be wrong, a designated “foreign agent” could be subject to a fine of up to 300,000 rubles ($ 4,250) or a prison term of two to five years.
In comments on Russia’s “foreign agents” law on October 21, President Vladimir Putin reiterated the Kremlin’s contested argument that the United States has similar legislation that “goes as far as criminal liability.”
“It’s not like that here,” Putin said.
However, although Russia’s “foreign agent” laws do not themselves provide for criminal penalties, those named may face criminal charges and years in prison under other laws if they fail to do so. do not properly comply with the requirements set out in the “foreign agents” legislation.
Media defense lawyer Galina Arapova, herself twice described as a “foreign agent” by the government, called the designation a “sword of Damocles” which could at any time lead to serious consequences.
“Every three months you have to report to the justice ministry,” she said. “It takes less time to do your tax returns. Plus, it’s an extremely nasty intrusion into your personal life.”
It is difficult to understand the requirements of Russia’s frequently amended “foreign agent” laws, even for lawyers, Arapova added. (The requirements for persons designated as “foreign agents” and the links to the forms they must complete and submit can be found here.)
“How to get through this maze is very difficult for the layman to understand,” she said.
Listing on one of the Russian government’s “foreign agents” lists does not mean that a person or organization has done anything illegal. However, failure to comply with legal requirements following designation could have serious consequences.
On October 12, news emerged that the first administrative case had been filed against a designated “foreign agent”. Activist Stepan Petrov, head of the non-governmental organization Yakutia-Our Opinion and head of the regional branch of the NGO For Human Rights, was added to the list of “foreign agents-mass media” in August.
This month, he received a summons for alleged violation of the law, although the nature of his alleged violation was not disclosed. He faces a fine of up to 10,000 rubles ($ 142).
Later that same day, an administrative case was opened against prominent Moscow-based human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, 80 years at the head of For Human Rights. Russian state watchdog Roskomnadzor accused him of failing to include the mandatory warning that information was produced or distributed by a designated “foreign agent” on 20 Facebook posts, two Instagram posts and 13 posts Twitter.
Ponomaryov has even been cited for failing to include the required text when he changed his profile picture on Facebook.
I have to mark everything that people post on my Facebook page. In other words, if someone wishes me a happy birthday, I have to mark it or the robots of Roskomnadzor might consider it an unmarked post. “
“I can see now that they are trying to make it difficult for me to be on Facebook,” Ponomaryov told RFE / RL. “Even reposts have to come with scoring, which is complete nonsense. I will most likely stop reposting things, but instead write fuller posts instead of reposting. They stimulate me to work harder. . “
Repeated violations of the provisions of the “foreign agent” laws could lead to criminal prosecution.
“I’m not going to intentionally run into a criminal case, but if they open one, then that’s my fate,” he added.
Liza surnacheva is Editor-in-Chief at Current Time and designated “Foreign Agent”. She has successfully registered the legal entity required to file the reports with the Department of Justice and is working with lawyers to submit her first financial report. She says the main effect on her life so far has been the tagging of social media posts.
“I have to mark everything that people post on my Facebook page,” Supernacheva said. “That is, if someone wishes me a happy birthday, I have to mark it or the robots of Roskomnadzor might consider it an unmarked publication. If I publish that I am selling a cabinet, I also have to mark it. mark… If I register on a dating site, I must mark in my profile that I am nominated. “
Denis Kamalyagin, a journalist from Pskov, was one of the first people designated as a “foreign agent” in December 2020.
“I wasn’t scared from the start, and I’m even less scared now,” he told RFE / RL. “The more of us there are, the more I feel inspired because five people cannot defend themselves against the state; even 100 people probably cannot. But when there are dozens of big media, the best media, then it’s not that scary, a kind of team is forming.
Lawyer Arapova says the law is like a weapon: it was passed to be fired.
“They adopted it for use,” she said. “What they want to use is not a legal question but a question of political intentions. I think they are doing it to prevent people from expressing themselves, to block the free dissemination of information and to ensure that there are no more critical statements about the authorities.
The first administrative cases, she said, are a bit of a wake-up call for journalists, the media and all Russian citizens.
“Everyone now has to decide for themselves – either they are free people who have the right to express themselves freely, to be international experts, to work for foreign media companies,” she said. “Or they can go to a village and never talk publicly about politics, not stick their noses in anything or work with anyone. That’s the choice.”