By Paul Goble
The Duma on first reading approved a bill that would allow the government to identify individuals and not just groups as “foreign agents,” an action that Novaya gazeta says means that “if your grandmother in Kazakhstan sends you 100 dollars, you can become a foreign agent.”
The measure which makes no distinction between money from from private individuals and groups and from governments received 333 votes from United Russia and Just Russia. The KPRF and LDPR deputies didn’t vote (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/01/13/75128-esli-babushka-iz-kazahstana-prislala-vam-sto-dollarov-vy-mozhete-stat-inoagentom).
That in turn means that almost all Russians could be held to have violated this measure should it become law. That is because, Damir Gaynutdinov, a lawyer who works with the Agora rights group, says, everyone can be deemed to be “a distributor of information” and almost everyone will have received a cash present from a relative abroad.
An additional repressive measure in the new bill is a requirement that all users of social networks indicate that information they are republishing from foreign agent media comes from such media. This would be similar to rules under which Russian outlets are required to specify that any reference to a group Moscow has classified as terrorist have a note to that effect.
Failure to do so, Moscow political analyst Aleksey Makarkin says, would open the way to the blocking of sites that by failing to follow the rules were promoting terrorism or extremism. The most likely consequence of this will be a decline in the reposting of materials that are in any way questionable from the point of view of the powers that be.
And the Duma measure also calls for registering all foreign media with the Russian government as foreign agents, unless they create a special and separate Russian segment. If that segment already exists, then the foreign media are obligated to report that or face being blocked or restricted in operation.
That in turn will give Moscow hostages that it can trade, opening the way for more pressure than it can impose at present when its only option often is to block sites for media outlets based abroad, media rights experts say.
But they add that this law if approved is unlikely to be implemented as intended. “Not a single repressive law adopted in recent times has been applied in the form in which it is written.” But that doesn’t eliminate the damage that a measure opening the way to arbitrary action by the authorities can and will do.