Putin signs controversial 'foreign agents' bill

Vladimir Putin (RIA Novosti/Aleksey Druginyn)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a controversial status bill that brands externally-funded NGOs as "foreign agents". The document is to come into force in 120 days following its publication.

­The bill, previously approved by both chambers of the Russian parliament, will now force non-profit organizations receiving funding from abroad and engaging in political activity to register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents.” Such organizations will also be required to file a financial report to officials every quarter.

The bill further instructs the Justice Ministry to prepare annual reports on the activities of those NGOs that have been recognized as foreign agents and present it to the Lower House, including a full breakdown of their financial operations.

The document stipulates that such spheres as science, art and culture, healthcare, sociology, charity and volunteering do not fit within the purview of political activity.

Amid growing concerns that media outlets funded from abroad could also fall within the scope of this law, the Kremlin recently reiterated that the fourth estate will not be subjected to the “foreign agents” status.

Religious organizations, state companies state-owned corporations and those NGOs founded by state companies aren’t obliged to report on their foreign sponsorship and won’t be branded foreign agents regardless of their revenue sources.

All the materials published or otherwise distributed, including through the internet, by those registered with the Justice Ministry should have the mark “distributed by foreign agents” on it.

Failure to comply with the law will be grounds for criminal prosecution.

The bill has sparked widespread criticism from Russian HR campaigners and non-governmental organizations who think that tightening the screws on NGOs could split society and hurt the drive towards democracy due to lack of funding.

The government has already been under attack for its recent legislative initiatives – including the so-called anti-rally bill, a bill toughening punishment for libel, and laws imposing greater government control over the Internet.

The latter one, dubbed the “web blacklist bill”, has already been passed by Russia's lower house of parliament. The list includes web pages which advocate suicide, substance abuse, excessively risky behavior, and child pornography.

The bill has provoked a flurry of protest in the blogosphere, as well as among human rights activists and opposition leaders. Critics say it gives too wide a scope for the government to subjectively select which sites to blacklist.

"The reality is that they are testing to see how to adopt such measures in the future,” wrote Anton Nossik, media director of Internet holding company SUP, which runs Russia's most popular blogging platform. “For the past 12 years I was sure that the Russian government was smart enough not to censor the Internet. Now they are scattering any doubt that Russia is on the path of government regulation that is senseless and ruthless."