Journalists, bloggers to be included in foreign agents law

Association

On 12th July 2018, the State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly) announced in an official press release that regulation of the activities of branches of foreign NGOs will be "improved" in the Russian Federation. According to the release, new regulations adopted in July 2018 expand the list of grounds for refusing to register a branch office of a foreign NGO in Russia. Branches of foreign organisations will be denied registration if the goals and objectives of creating a branch or representative office are contrary to the Constitution and to the laws of the Russian Federation. The new regulation also shortens to seven days (from twenty) the period during which the head of the foreign NGO's mission is obliged to notify the relevant authority of the address of the branch and of contact phones.

Journalists, bloggers to be covered by foreign agents law

The previous week, on 3rd July, the State Duma's information and communication committee approved amendments to the law on foreign media outlets. According to the proposed amendments, authorities would now also be able to label individual journalists and bloggers as "foreign agents". A earlier version of the bill had been given preliminary approval by the Duma in January 2018. This followed a November 2017 decision to designate international media organisations operating in Russia as foreign agents. That decision came in response to a decision by the United States government to force Russian broadcaster RT to register as a foreign agent in the US. 

Under the latest amendments approved on 3rd July, in order to be included in the definition, an individual must distribute information in print, audio, video or electronic version to an unlimited audience, and also receive money or property for those activities from foreign states, international organisations or foreign citizens. Also, any person receiving money from a Russian legal entity that has full or partial foreign financing can become a foreign agent. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the amendments still need approval from the Federation Council and the President before they become law.

New procedures for suspending NGOs labelled as foreign agents

On 6th August 2018, Russian media reported that the Ministry of Justice has developed a procedure for suspending the activities of non-profit organisations which have been designated foreign agents and which are conducting "projects threatening Russia's interests". Although the foreign agents law has been on Russian statute books since 2012, regulations to suspend or terminate the activities of designated organisations had never been developed and the procedure for suspending the activities of CSOs included in the foreign agents register was unclear. In order to avoid administrative and financial sanctions, some NGOs had taken the decision to suspend activities. Others underwent rebranding or decided not to apply for external funding. Russian media reported that lawyers and human rights defenders are worried that these changes could threaten a large number of NGOs due to the potentially broad interpretation of what constitutes a project that threatens Russia's interests.

Peaceful Assembly

On 15th August 2018, protests were organised in Moscow, Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg by the parents of activists arrested in mid-March 2018. At that time, some members of the previously unknown New Greatness movement were arrested and detained. The detainees, many of whom are minors, were accused of creating an opposition political organisation, which the authorities subsequently recharacterised as an extremist group. The 15th August march was led by parents Anna Pavlikova and Masha Dubovik who were calling for a fair trial for those arrested. Those who joined the protests were invited to carry toys, and not to display banners or political messages.

On 16th August, after the protests, a court decided that Pavlikova and Dubovik, would be transferred from custody to house arrest, bringing the total number in house arrest to six, out of the total of ten accused in the New Greatness case. All of them are accused of organising extremist activities. According to the Russian press, the accusation is based on the testimony of three men who were not arrested, and their interrogation records have been removed from the case file. Radio Free Europe reports that a "key organizer of the group was an agent for the FSB" (Federal Security Service).

Ruslan Kostylenkov, whom the investigators have identified as the leader of the New Greatness organisation, said that he had been beaten up and tortured during his detention. Anna Pavlikova, who at the time of detention was not yet 18 years old, was threatened with violence. Maria Dubovik, had been transferred to the hospital on 7th August. Her mother told the press that during an ultrasound conducted in pretrial detention, Dubovik was found to have a tumor of unknown origin. OVP, a website monitoring political persecution in Russia, reported that, even though she had been transferred to house arrest, she is not allowed to freely visit medical institutions.

Expression

On 27th June 2018, Article 19 and other human rights organisations released a statement on the state of internet freedoms in the Russian Federation. It describes how limitations on internet freedom in Russia have the potential to violate the rights of users around the world. The model that Moscow has introduced in Russia is a model for other countries in the adoption of regressive legislation contravening international standards on freedom of expression, including access to information and the right to privacy, as well as placing unjustified pressure on internet intermediaries. According to Article 19, and the other organisations which signed onto the statement, Russia’s attempts to block the Telegram app have resulted in extensive violations of freedom of expression, including access to information under the pretext of fighting and “countering extremism”. Russia's so-called ‘"Yarovaya Law" (named after the law's initiator) further undermines people's rights to communication, freedom of expression and access to information. One provision of the law, which obliges companies to store the content of all communications for six months and to make them accessible to the security services, entered into force in July, 2018. Fifty-two CSOs signed the Article 19 statement.