Russia’s ‘Foreign agent’ bill to restrain independent groups

bill introduced in Russia’s parliament on November 10, 2020 would further restrict the ability to function of independent groups that are already suffocating under the restrictive “foreign agents” law and other legislation, Human Rights Watch said today.

The bill, submitted by Russia’s Cabinet of Ministers, would expand reporting requirements for independent groups tagged as “foreign agents” and would allow the Justice Ministry to ban any planned or ongoing activity by those groups. Failure to comply would serve as grounds to close down the organization. It also introduces additional grounds for unscheduled government inspections of these groups.

“This bill would create yet another repressive tool the government can use to harass independent groups, interfere with their work, and ultimately shut them down,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This bill should be dropped immediately, and the other repressive laws need to go.”

Existing legislation allows the Justice Ministry to ban a foreign group’s activity or project, in part or in whole. The new bill expands this authority to allow the ministry to ban activities and projects of Russian organizations designated “foreign agents.”

Other new proposed regulations target social platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Parliamentarians say they are aiming to combat “internet censorship.” If content from Russian media is restricted by foreign platforms, Russia would be able to impose fines or fully or partially block the social media networks. Such sanctions would be decided by the Russian public prosecutor after consultation with the Foreign Ministry.

But it seems doubtful that a platform like YouTube could really be completely blocked in Russia, because the state would affect many of its own citizens by doing so, explained Valery Fadeyev, chairman of the presidential human rights council.

Nevertheless, Fadeyev agrees in principle with the proposed legislation and said that “serious debate” was needed on how to protect “Russian media and Russian users from censorship by American IT giants.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov also said decisive action had to be taken to combat “discriminatory actions of foreign internet platforms against Russian customers.”

Tighter restrictions are also envisaged for the education sector. More is to be done to fight “anti-Russian propaganda” in schools and among students, according to a statement. International cooperation by Russian educational institutions could be affected.

Another proposal envisages firing teachers if they engage in “agitation” — a term that is not clearly defined — or instigate “unconstitutional” activity. Human rights activist and journalist Nikolai Svanidze said in an interview with the Interfax news agency that this would create “even more scope for despotism” and denunciation.