MOSCOW - The Russian State Duma voted 414-0 on Wednesday to pass legislation allowing authorities to force any foreign media organization to register as a “foreign agent” under penalty of fines or a possible ban on operations in Russia.
The legislation, passed in retaliation for the registration of English-language Russian news network RT under similar legislation in the United States, was drafted hastily and will likely be signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin by the end of the month.
The legislation did not include a list of media organizations that will be targeted, and lawmakers said they would be chosen by Russia’s Ministry of Justice.
Likely targets are U.S. news organizations which receive government funding, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, as well as the privately-owned American TV channel CNN.
It also will likely be used to selectively target media from countries in conflict with the Kremlin, in particular if that conflict involves the state-funded television station RT, which used to be known as Russia Today.
The law, which is focused on media, is considerably broader than the U.S. legislation, which only targets state-funded organizations.
In comments to The Washington Post outside of the Duma hall, Pyotr Tolstoy, a former journalist and talk show host turned lawmaker who led the drafting of the legislation, said he expected the law to target a small number of news agencies at first, but could possibly grow if Russia believes more of its news agencies are being pressured abroad.
“This campaign looks like it’s going to go on for a long time,” Tolstoy said, referring to what he called pressure on Russian journalists abroad. U.S. authorities accuse RT of carrying out a Kremlin-dictated influence campaign on U.S. citizens, a charge the television channel denies. “Every time, Russia is going to take hard response measures. This is not a country you can dictate terms to.”
He added that lawmakers were also reviewing laws about advertising on Facebook and Twitter, the latter having recently blocked RT from advertising on the site. “We are listening carefully to the questions our colleagues in Congress are asking,” he said, “and we have questions of our own.”
The move comes in response to a Justice Department requirement that RT register as a foreign agent due to its alleged role in interfering in U.S. affairs and the 2016 presidential elections by pushing the Kremlin’s agenda.
Russia denies it meddled in the 2016 election, and RT has accused the Justice Department of impinging on free speech. In a statement, the Justice Department said the U.S. legislation, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), merely informs the public without inhibiting “freedom of expression.”
Under the new law, foreign media organizations identified by Russian Justice Ministry would be forced to register as foreign agents, then provide financial accounts and label their reports as having been produced by foreign agents. Foreign media that do not register when requested can lose the right to work in Russia.
Andrew Roth is a reporter in The Post’s Moscow bureau.