WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department says press freedom in Russia is under growing threat as authorities slap RFE/RL and other media organizations with restrictive “foreign agent” labels and fines.
Speaking at a press briefing on April 29, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the Russian government is increasingly “intolerant of outside perspectives” as it moves to quash any dissent in the country.
The comments come as Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor has hit RFE/RL’s Russian-language services with fines of nearly $1 million in recent months for hundreds of violations of the “foreign agent” law.
In its latest salvo against independent media, the Russian government designated the Latvia-based Meduza as a “foreign agent,” taking aim at a top Russian news source.
“We’ve made clear that Russia’s actions against RFE/RL and other media organizations labeled as so-called ‘foreign agents’ reflect significant intolerance and oppressive restrictions,” Price said.
First passed in 2012 and expanded several times since, the “foreign agent” law gives authorities the power to brand nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups, and news media deemed to receive foreign funding for political activity as “foreign agents.”
Among other things, the law requires news organizations that receive foreign funding to label content within Russia as being produced by a “foreign agent.” The mandatory 24-word announcement must be twice as large as the font size used for the headline of the article. For video materials, the text must occupy at least 20 percent of the screen and be shown for at least 15 seconds.
The targeting of RFE/RL has raised concerns the Russian government may be moving to shutter RFE/RL’s operations inside Russia and force its Russian-language services and Current Time, the network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, out of the country.
“Should the Russian government continue to move to forcibly shut down RFE/RL, we will respond,” Price said, without specifying what action could be taken.
An independent nonprofit corporation that receives funding from the U.S. Congress, RFE/RL refuses to comply with the “foreign agent” law.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said, “RFE/RL will not be put in a position of undermining freedom of speech and journalistic integrity. We will not allow Roskomnadzor and the Kremlin to make editorial decisions about how we engage our audiences in Russia.”
In recent weeks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has raised the issue of RFE/RL with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
“We’ve been very seized with the RFE/RL situation with Russia,” Blinken said on April 28 at a roundtable discussion on world press freedom.
“We’re doing everything we can to be supportive and to find a good way forward. Ultimately, Moscow is doing what Moscow will do, but we’re trying to make sure that at least in some ways we can be supportive and helpful, even if our advocacy falls on deaf ears in Moscow itself,” Blinken said.