Russia: New ‘foreign agents’ bill further erodes freedom of expression and association
A bill introduced in Russia’s parliament would identify individuals receiving funds from abroad as “foreign agents”, ban them from joining the civil service or holding a municipal government position, and force them to mark their letters to authorities and other material with a “foreign agent” label. Responding to the bill put forward on Wednesday night, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher Natalia Prilutskaya said:
“If adopted, the bill will drastically limit and damage the work not only of civil society organizations that receive funds from outside Russia but many other groups as well. It will put the stigmatizing label of “foreign agent” on individuals -- as it has done [for years] on independent NGOs – who are deemed to ‘participate in political activity in the interest of foreign states, its bodies, international or foreign organizations, foreign citizens or stateless persons’.
“The bill signals a new witch hunt of civil society groups and human rights defenders standing up for justice and dignity. It exposes the Russian authorities’ belief that civil society actors are destructive “agents of the West” bent on destabilizing the government – not as key allies to address challenges and seek to bring positive change. The Russian authorities have already starved civil society financially and forced many organizations to close. Now, they are further demonizing individual activists.
“The more Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime comes under pressure from Russians exercising their right to criticize the government, including in its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the harder it tries to invent ways to shut down dissent. Instead of wasting their time on suffocating the remaining critical voices, the authorities should ditch the bill and work to guarantee human rights in Russia.”
Russia’s draconian “foreign agents” law came into force on 21 November 2012. Since then, hundreds of organizations have seen their funding shrink, their reputations tarnished, and their staff intimidated or prosecuted. The law has been arbitrarily applied to target Russian civil society organizations, human rights defenders and political activists, including the authorities’ most vocal critics such as Aleksey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Under the proposed law introduced on 18 November, the “foreign agents” label would be obligatory for publications and other materials issued by public associations and their members, as well as for NGO staff deemed to be in that category. Apparently with the intent to block the few remaining opportunities for foreign funding, the draft law also proposes to expand the “foreign agents” status to unregistered public associations.