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Russia takes aim at CNN and foreign media after RT crackdown

by Greg Walters
Nov 15 2017, 4:24pm

Here’s one more thing the Kremlin and Trump share: A distaste for CNN.

Russian lawmakers approved sweeping new restrictions on foreign media on Wednesday in response to U.S. moves against Moscow’s RT television network.

CNN, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are just some of the organizations likely to be targeted under the new rules, Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov said last Friday as the bill was being drafted.

Anxiety rippled through the Moscow media world as the bill passed parliament’s lower house unanimously on Wednesday evening, with journalists and activists voicing concern over the continued erosion of freedom of expression in Russia.

“The goal here is basically to reduce the little freedom there is left for media and news in Russia,” Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, told VICE News.

The new rules, yet to be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, give authorities the power to designate media outlets as “foreign agents” and task them with potentially burdensome requirements on disclosure. The General Prosecutor’s Office will also be allowed to block access to websites of any organization designated an “undesirable organization,” according to Amnesty International.

“While the toxic ‘foreign agent’ label doesn’t sound good in any language, in Russian, it smacks of Cold War espionage.”

Media outlets slapped with the foreign agent label will take on “onerous obligations to declare full details of their funding, finances, and staffing,” Amnesty International said.

“While the toxic ‘foreign agent’ label doesn’t sound good in any language, in Russian, it smacks of Cold War espionage,” Krivosheev said.

The obvious targets might be big global players. But smaller Russian-language outlets that have relocated outside Russia’s borders in an attempt to maintain editorial freedom might be more vulnerable, Krivosheev added.

He declined to name outlets so as not to make their situation even more precarious.

“I’d rather not name anyone,” he said. “It’s a bit uncomfortable now to be pointing fingers.”

The legislation — which Russia’s own human rights ombudsman, Mikhail Fedotov, criticized for being “as confused as possible” — was rushed through Parliament after the U.S. forced RT to register as a foreign agent under a 1938 law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) on Monday.

Registering as a Foreign Agent in the U.S. technically shouldn’t have any affect on content, but the move outraged Russian officials and the leadership of RT all the same, with RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan scorning the U.S. in response.

“It reminds one of the old Soviet days,” she told a media conference in Amsterdam.

Valentina Matvienko, speaker of Russia’s upper house, has accused America of launching a “government propaganda machine” that has “begun to persecute Russian media,” according to Russian news agency Interfax.

For political lawyers with expertise in FARA, however, RT’s registration was a long time coming and a sign of increased enforcement of a rarely used law.

“If you are truly acting as an agent for a foreign government, it doesn’t matter what your corporate status is — whether you’re a think tank, a media organization, a lobbyist,” said Joshua Rosenstein, a partner at D.C.-based political law firm Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein, & Birkenstock. “FARA does have broad applicability.”

RT has complained bitterly about the new level of scrutiny it’s facing in the U.S., saying the foreign agent designation is causing its American staff to quit in droves. Under the new Russian rules, foreign media in Moscow may soon offer similar gripes.

For now, questions remain as to how the new Russian law will be interpreted, said Amnesty’s Krivosheev. But he added that the implementation is unlikely to be on the lenient side of what the rules would allow.

“Where there is any ambiguity, I expect it will not be interpreted in favor of the freedom of expression,” he said.