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Russian Federation: Restrictions on Media with Foreign Funding Imposed

(May 14, 2021) On April 30, 2021, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin signed into law recently adopted amendments to the Code of Administrative Violations. The amendments impose fines for distribution in mass media of materials produced by an entity recognized and registered as a foreign agent in Russia if such publications do not bear a special sign designating the publisher as a “foreign agent.” The restrictions apply to publications and messages distributed online or through social networks. (Federal Law No. 102-FZ on Amending the Code of Administrative Violations of the Russian Federation § 2.)

The law follows other amendments to the Code of Administrative Violations related to the work of so-called foreign agents in Russia. Those amendments, which entered into force on March 1, 2021, prohibit any mentioning of a person or organization recognized as a foreign agent without informing the audience about this fact. The fine imposed for violating the amendments may reach up to the equivalent of US$5,000. (Federal Law No. 14-FZ on Amending the Code of Administrative Violations of the Russian Federation.)

“Foreign Agent” under Russian Law

The definition of a “foreign agent” was introduced in 2012 as an amendment to Russia’s Law of Noncommercial Organizations, and was amended in 2014, 2016, and 2019. (Federal Law No 121-FZ of July 20, 2012, on Amending Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation in regard to Regulating Activities of Noncommercial Organizations Performing Functions of a Foreign Agent.) The Law provides that any nongovernment organization involved in political activities, or individual or media outlet that receives financing from abroad is considered to be a foreign agent and is subject to special registration and monitoring rules. The Russian Ministry of Justice can place such organizations on the list of foreign agents. (Federal Law No. 426-FZ of December 2, 2019 on Amending Federal Laws on Mass Media and on Information, Information Technology and Protection of Information art. 1(2).)

Restrictions on Foreign Agents

Registration as a foreign agent does not directly prohibit the organization from working in Russia but imposes additional requirements. Most of these requirements are related to financial reporting. An organization that receives financial or any other assistance from abroad must report quarterly to the government registration authority about the purpose and actual expenditure of foreign funds, and is subject to mandatory annual audits. The audit report must be submitted to the registering authority and published on the authority’s website. General accounting should be done separately for domestic and foreign funds received by the organization. (Federal Law No 121-FZ, art. 2.5(a).) Government agencies are allowed to conduct unscheduled emergency reviews of an organization’s financial documents if they suspect or have been informed of the organization’s wrongdoing. Additionally, reports on foreign agents’ senior staff must be provided every six months. If the government finds that an organization has not fully complied with the registration procedure, it may suspend the activities of the organization for up to six months. (Art. 2.5(zh).) Violations of the registration rules are punishable by fines up to the equivalent of about US$6,000 or a two-year term of imprisonment. (Art. 3.2.) Amendments to the Code of Administrative Violations and Criminal Code of Russia adopted in December 2019 and December 2020 provided for increased fines of up to the equivalent of US$100,000 for multiple violations of requirements associated with the foreign agent designation. (Federal Law No. 443-FZ of Dec. 16, 2019 on Amendments to the Code of Administrative Violations of the Russian Federation art. 1(2)(3).) Depending on the circumstances, individuals recognized as foreign agents and officials of foreign-agent judicial persons are subject to imprisonment for a term of up to five years. (Federal Law No. 525-FZ of December 30, 2020 on Amending Article 330-1 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code, art. 1.)

Marking of Foreign Agent’s Materials and Publications

All organizations registered as foreign agents are obligated to mark all their publications and other materials, including online content, with a reference that “these materials were produced and/or distributed by a noncommercial organization performing functions of a foreign agent.” (Federal Law No 121-FZ, art. 2.4.) According to Roskomnadzor, the government oversight body in the sphere of mass communications, the size of fonts for these markings must be twice as large as the size of fonts used for the text of the publication. Moreover, the markings must be placed in the center of the page or image and take up no less than 20% of the space allotted for the publication. For audio and visual productions, the announcement that materials have been produced by a foreign agent must be no shorter than 15 seconds and be broadcast at the beginning of the presentation and at the beginning of each new broadcast segment after commercial breaks. (Roskomnadzor Order No. 124 of September 23, 2020.) Access to a media outlet’s content can be restricted by Roskomnadzor if a court finds that the outlet has violated the foreign agent requirements. (Federal Law No. 426-FZ, art. 2(2).)

Constitutional Court’s Position

In 2014 the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation rejected the objection of Russia’s Human Rights Commissioner and a regional NGO that registering an organization as a foreign agent violates its rights by stigmatizing it. According to the court, the fact that an organization is registered as a foreign agent does not mean that the state views this organization negatively, and the public image of such an organization should not be unfavorable. (Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, Ruling No. 10-P of April 8, 2014.)

Other Requirements for Media

Law No. 102-FZ of April 30, 2020 also introduced a special uniform requirement for all journalists and other media representatives if they report on public events or are present at mass gatherings. Reporters must be identifiable by a “clearly visible distinguishing sign that will be established by the federal police in consultation with the federal media oversight agency and the Union of Journalists.  Anyone fraudulently using such a sign is punishable by 50 hours of mandatory labor or a fine up to the equivalent of US$500. (Federal Law No. 102-FZ § 3.)