Russia's State Duma passes amendments to foreign agent media law

Putin arrives to meet with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin in Moscow Russia

The legislation is widely expected to pass a third reading in the Duma, before moving to the upper house for approval.

This move became a response to the demand by the US Department of Justice that the US branch of Russia's RT television channel, RT America, should register as a foreign agent by November 13. In particular, Twitter banned advertising from the accounts of Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik, with Facebook later claiming that it found election-related posts allegedly used by Russia to influence the outcome of the presidential race.

The developments come as ties between the United States and Russian Federation continue to be severely strained over issues including Moscow's alleged interference in the US presidential election previous year and its military intervention in Ukraine.

The amendments under consideration in Russia were proposed by lawmakers in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature.

Legislator Leonid Levin said the bill will provide a tool for the Justice Ministry to designate worldwide media outlets as foreign agents.

The media outlets singled out as foreign agents will face requirements now applied to foreign-funded non-governmental organisations under a 2012 law.

A Russian law adopted in 2012 forces NGOs that have global funding and whose activities are deemed "political" to undergo intensive checks and label themselves as "foreign agents" on paperwork and statements.

Critics of the law have said the definition of political activity is so loose that it could be used against nearly any non-governmental organisation.

The law was approved after a slew of massive anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow in 2011-2012.

Vyacheslav Volodin

"The measure will in no way affect freedom of speech in Russian Federation", deputy speaker Pyotr Tolstoi said immediately before the vote, although Amnesty International earlier criticized the proposal as a "serious blow" for press freedom in Russian Federation. He said Russian Federation would retaliate.

The text of the amendment defines affected mass-media outlets as legal entities that are "registered in a foreign nation, or a foreign structure that operates without registering as a company, engaged in spreading printed, audio, audio-visual or any other content prepared for an unlimited group of people". The State Duma is set to approve them on Wednesday.

The legislation must then be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

It wasn't immediately clear how the proposed amendments would be applied.

They are broadly phrased to allow the government to declare practically any foreign media outlet as a foreign agent. But Russian officials and lawmakers emphasized Tuesday that they would take a measured approach, one strictly proportionate to the USA action.

Leonid Levin, head of the Duma's committee for information, emphasized that the amendments were a framework meant to provide a legal basis for government action.

"It will up to the Justice Ministry to decide whom to list as foreign agents", Levin said.

The lower house of parliament's deputy speaker Pyotr Tolstoy said in parliament the reciprocal measures were "forced" by the actions of the United States. The pressure against RT has led to mass resignations in the broadcaster's USA office and difficulties in finding new staff. "We're uncomfortable with governments deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda".

He noted that the measure would allow Russian Federation to mirror the United States demands for RT or any other such action taken by other countries.

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