Russia to Retaliate Against Foreign Media Over RT Soon

(Bloomberg) -- Russia will expand controversial legislation on “foreign agents” for use against all media that receive funding from abroad, with the first outlets likely to be hit this month in retaliation over U.S. actions against Kremlin-funded broadcaster RT.

Media that fail to comply with demands to register as “foreign agents” under the law will be banned from working in Russia, Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said Tuesday, according to the Interfax news service.

“Today the myth of free speech in the U.S. has fallen and, along with it, the basis for allowing the mouthpieces of American propaganda in Russia to live comfortably,” Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the international affairs committee of the upper house of parliament, told reporters in Moscow. Legislation will be ready in time for the Russian Justice Ministry to make the first designations against foreign media by the end of this month, he said.

Russia’s moving quickly to clamp down on media from abroad after RT confirmed on Monday that it had complied with a Justice Department demand to register as a foreign agent under U.S. law. The Russian law is based on one used to restrict non-governmental organizations, which imposes tight scrutiny by officials and requires them to place the words “foreign agent” on publications, a label that recalls Soviet-era denunciations of spies and fifth-columnists. 

‘Overseas Financing’

“Media registered in other countries, or receiving financial or other support from foreign government agencies or companies or from Russian companies with overseas financing, can be declared foreign agents independent of their legal status,” Tolstoy said, Interfax reported.

The changes aren’t aimed at crimping freedom of speech but are in response to the U.S.’s treatment of RT, said Leonid Levin, chairman of the information policy committee in the lower house. “We would hope that as few media as possible will wind up on this list in the future,” he said, according to state-run RIA Novosti.

The U.S. law, which applies to several outlets operating in the country including NHK from Japan and the China Daily newspaper, requires disclosure of the media organization’s foreign funding. RT, which said it registered under protest to avoid possible prosecution, denies assertions by U.S. intelligence agencies that it acted as a propaganda arm of the Russian government in efforts to influence last year’s presidential election.

The media crackdown is part of a broader Russian effort to protect against foreign interference as Vladimir Putin prepares for a likely declaration that he’ll seek a fourth term in presidential elections in March. The law against NGOs was passed after the biggest protests against his rule in 2011-2012 since he first became president in 2000.

CNN, U.S.-government-funded networks such as Radio Liberty and Voice of America, and Germany’s Deutsche Welle could be forced to register under the new rules, Andrei Isaev, first deputy head of the ruling United Russia party in the Duma, said Monday, according to RIA Novosti.

The media restrictions will be followed early next year by legislative changes to limit “undesirable activity” by any foreigners, as well as “undesirable cooperation” by Russians with groups from abroad deemed unfriendly by the government, Klimov said.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.