Recent events in Russia, notably the government’s February 1st sentencing of Alexei Navalny to years in prison on false charges following the failed assassination attempt against the opposition leader last summer, mark a transition to a new level of repression. While most of the reports have focused on the dramas in the courtroom and in the streets, there has also been less publicized crackdown on freedom of expression online.
Threats against social media platforms allowing users to post about the Navalny protests were part of a broader effort to tighten control over the media and information ecosystem in Russia. This included the Kremlin’s recent decision to label select digital media as foreign agents – a major change, but one that is rooted in Russian practice.
The “foreign agents” pressure campaign against international and domestic independent media companies escalated significantly on February 10 when the Russian government announced that it had fined US government broadcaster Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE / RL) for failure of nearly $ 150,000 evidenced complying with the law. These steps illustrate a classic tactic used by the Russian government: they mimick the language of other countries’ efforts to isolate their policies from foreign influence in order to give a legitimate veneer to their own attempts to quell domestic disagreements.
The law applied against RFE / RL – Russia’s 2012 Law on “Foreign Agents” – is probably the best example of this tactic. The alleged inspiration for the law was an American law dating from WWII called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which was used to promote transparency by requiring lobbyists working on foreign government payrolls to report these contracts for public records . US law has been largely undisputed (in fact, recent controversies around the law have mostly been about lax enforcement), with hundreds of active registrants (foreign trade associations and large US lobbying firms being common) not suffering any particular reputational or additional legal risk due to their “foreign agent” status. In Russia, after Vladimir Putin’s return for a third term as president, the law was used to harass, intimidate, and publicly defile hundreds of small Russian nonprofit groups (who work in areas ranging from protecting human rights to helping diabetes) Patients to Conservation Endangered Species range from salmon species) that have received funding from foreign foundations or otherwise collaborate with the international community.
In recent years the law has been changed repeatedly to create new and greater threats to Russian civil society. After a massive show of solidarity in which Russian NGOs unanimously refused to voluntarily register, the law was amended in 2014 to allow the Justice Ministry itself to apply the label directly to NGOs. In 2017, the Duma again amended the law, giving the Russian government the power to require the media to identify themselves as “foreign agents” and to disclose their sources of funding.
Two weeks after the law was signed, the Justice Department published its first list of “foreign agent” media organizations, consisting of nine US government channels: RFE / RL, seven of its affiliates reporting regional news, and the Russian service Voice of America. This initial designation posed major challenges for the organization, including a renewed reluctance by Russian outlets to cover RFE / RL coverage and concerns about the legal risks for Russian citizens working for the designated outlets.
But the Russian government wasn’t finished yet. The law was amended again in 2019 to allow the government to apply the foreign agent label to individuals. The first individual designations for “foreign agents” were distributed in December 2020 to three Russian journalists, an artist activist and the 79-year-old human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov. (Ponomaryov, a prominent figure in the Russian human rights world from the Soviet era, had to dissolve his NGO For Human Rights in November 2019 after it was also designated as a foreign agent.)
In the last few weeks this repressive strategy has increased again, this time against online media. On December 29, 2020 (the day after the first individual designations as “foreign agent” were announced), Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet and media regulator, issued a statement saying it had asked foreign media not to identify themselves under Russian law . According to a policy dated September 2020, Russian law required these companies to fully label all published content that identified the information as “distributed by a foreign agent” (a designation that, as always, was effortlessly applied by unilateral measures by the Ministry of Justice ) due process).
On January 12, Roskomnadzor announced eight enforcement actions for violating these labeling rules for foreign agents. The agency didn’t specify which digital media they were targeting, but as the independent media broadcaster Meduza pointed out, the Interfax publication reported in December 2020 that RFE / RL was under fire by the Russian government for failing to put labels on foreign agents had applied their contents.
This was later confirmed in a January New York Times report that specifically named RFE / RL as one of the target media. Former RFE / RL chief Jamie Fly linked Russian measures against mismanagement, dysfunction and lawlessness that marked Trump’s seven-month tenure as CEO of the U.S. agency for global media (the RFE / RL agency and agency) US government sponsored media) who told the Times, “The Kremlin appears to be taking advantage of the chaos on US international broadcasting.” On January 27, the Russian District Court fined RFE / RL and its CEO for not attaching a “foreign media” label to its content. The record $ 150,000 fine on February 10 may not be the last as Russian regulators and courts continue to deliver a steady stream of judgments against broadcasters.
These recent moves make it hard to imagine that the Russian government has an endgame in mind for RFE / RL other than finally banning the outlet. Radio Liberty was ousted by Russian radio waves in 2012, and Roskomnadzor has banned news websites for politically offensive content since 2014. The RFE / RL leadership is pushing back, questioning the legality of the move under a Russian-Czech treaty of 1994 – a novel strategy one that seems to have long chances. A bipartisan congressional letter threatening Russia with additional sanctions if the fines are enforced is also unlikely to rule in favor of RFE / RL. To understand why, it is helpful to consider how the campaign against RFE / RL fits into the Kremlin’s broader strategy for controlling Russian online spaces.
The Kremlin, which is expanding its “foreign agent” policy to online media, is a natural extension of the Russian government’s internet control model, which combines online restrictions, disinformation and disruption with traditional forms of offline coercion such as fines, arrests and intimidation . This strategy also relies heavily on the “false mimicry” dynamic described above: as other countries take new steps to combat disinformation, cyber espionage and other online security threats, the Russian government is using the same language to impose new restrictions on rights of Russian citizens justify online.
The US government agencies who want to control foreign money, influence, and non-state presence in the country naturally bring their own concerns about civil liberties with them. In Russia, however, the intentions behind the laws and enforcement decisions for foreign agents are fundamentally different: they aim to restrict or completely neutralize politically independent organizations, and are formulated in a democratically understood language of oversight, while designed as an autocratic political instrument that can be used without it. The creation and use of these authorities is also driven by a paranoid and zero-sum worldview.
As the US government becomes more confident about labeling or cracking down on Russian state media – and when US social media platforms do the same – the question remains how much more the Kremlin will turn to these practices in order to the presence of “foreign agents” online media in Russia.
The application of the “Foreign Agent” label to digital media reflects the Russian government’s unique approach to Internet control. Often viewed as a purely technical enterprise, Internet control involves a variety of toolkits and techniques for exercising government control over the Internet directly and indirectly, with different countries taking different approaches. For example, China’s so-called Great Firewall, which blocks many websites directly from the outside world, is backed by an army of online propagandists, coercive measures and incentives to force private companies to censor. In the case of Russia, this has long been a mix of offline coercion and online technical measures, such as a 2014 law requiring bloggers to register with the government: this enables both more digital tracking by the authorities and the opening up of additional opportunities for physical intimidation and coercion (e.g., harassment, arrest, or worse) for online bloggers.
When labeling key actors as foreign agents, the goal of the Russian government, like the previous pressure on Russian NGOs, is not to technically and completely block access to this or that Internet resource. Instead, its goal is to set up the necessary coercive mechanisms of the “dictatorship of the law” – often tried offline – in order to take action against these resource owners, as the Kremlin deems it necessary.
This move by the Russian government can also be interpreted as a deterrent against further efforts by technology companies to combat the hijacking of their platforms for political disinformation campaigns by the Russian government. By distorting the actions of Western states, Russia uses a form of “argumentative gymnastics” in which the Kremlin cracks down on foreign corporations that fail to comply with its propaganda narratives and censorship guidelines, with the aim of fair regulation and the promotion of the welfare of the people Russian public – at the same time use these platforms for their own propaganda purposes.
As the Russian government continues to grapple with the national and international aftermath of its attempted assassination and subsequent imprisonment of Navalny, and the Biden government renews the efforts of the US agency on global media and repositions US foreign policy towards Russia, this will matter Place to look. In the competition for global information, this tool for “foreign agents” can be of increasing use to the Kremlin along with debates and regulatory proposals on Internet content.