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Putin ends 2020 by tightening the legal noose on press and individual freedoms

Moscow — Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed off on a package of controversial new laws that expand the government's powers to label individuals and organizations as "foreign agents," and introduce an array of new restrictions on media organizations.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting outside Moscow
Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a joint meeting of the country's State Council and the Council for Strategic Development and National Projects via a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia December 23, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin

The new laws expand the "foreign agent" legislation adopted in 2012, which have allowed authorities to apply the label to human rights groups and other organizations that receive funding from outside Russia. It has led to the closure of some prominent non-governmental organizations' Russian offices, court proceedings and fines over the past several years. The legislation was updated last year to make it applicable against individuals, including journalists and bloggers.

The amendments signed by the president on Wednesday broaden the parameters under which a person or entity can be officially deemed "a foreign agent" in Russia, a term that carries negative connotations harkening back to the Cold War period.

"Foreign agents"

Under the law, Russian or foreign citizens who receive assistance from abroad and engage in political activity "in the interests of a foreign state" must register as foreign agents.

Critics of the legislation point out that the legal definition of "political activity" is extremely broad, including, for instance, monitoring of elections, providing opinions on state policies – including via social media commentary - and participation in rallies.

The definition gives authorities the scope to wield the law against almost any voice of dissent ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.

Amnesty International condemned the bill last month, warning that it signaled "a new witch hunt" in Russia.

"It exposes the Russian authorities' belief that civil society actors are destructive 'agents of the West' bent on destabilizing the government," Amnesty International's Russia Researcher Natalia Prilutskaya said. "The Russian authorities have already starved civil society financially and forced many organizations to close. Now, they are further demonizing individual activists."

Under the expanded law, foreign journalists can be added to the official "foreign agents" list if state officials decide they've done something "incompatible with the professional activities of a journalist."

"Foreign agents" are subject to restrictions including providing financial reports on their activities and identifying themselves as such in publications in Russia. A separate bill signed by Putin on Wednesday imposes penalties ranging from fines, up to five years in prison for designated foreign agents who fail to register or report their activities as required.

Lawmaker Vasily Piskarev, a co-sponsor of the bill, defended the initiative, insisting that it was needed to protect "the sovereignty of the Russian Federation and the prevention of interference in the internal affairs of our state."

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Earlier this week the Justice Ministry added a prominent organization supporting Russian victims of domestic violence, Nasiliu.Net, to its list of "foreign agents," prompting outrage among rights activists. The ministry also added five people, including veteran rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, 79, a longtime critic of Putin, to its list of media foreign agents, along with four others, including a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Restricting the press, and everyone else

Putin wrapped up the year by signing dozens more bills into law on Wednesday, many of which are expected to further consolidate his rule. One of them grants Russian regulators powers to fully or partly block Internet platforms that "discriminate" against state media.

The law's backers cited complaints by state-affiliated media made about prejudice treatment by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Twitter currently labels some Russian media "state-affiliated media," which has been criticized by officials in Moscow. YouTube has blocked a few pro-Kremlin channels this year, a move Russian authorities have derided as "an act of censorship."

The authors of the bill said it was aimed at targeting foreign social networks, but it can be also used against Russian platforms.

Another law approved by the president prohibits the holding of political rallies near emergency services buildings, such as police offices or buildings belonging to intelligence agencies.

Sharing personal data or information about the work of intelligence officers or law enforcement agencies is now a criminal offense — an initiative seen as a reaction to recent media investigations led by the Bellingcat organization, which used leaked data to reveal the names, photos and phone numbers of FSB officers allegedly involved in the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny

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