The Russian government has recently passed a new foreign agent law, in effect immediately as of December 2019, that prescribes the status of the "foreign media performing the functions of a foreign agent" to individuals. Though it could be applied to a wide range of professionals, especially journalists working for foreign media and news agencies, so far it's being regarded as something that will be selectively applied only to specific individuals.

Criteria for 'foreign agent'

The term foreign agent was initially introduced in a federal law in 2012. This law addressed Russian non-governmental organizations that receive funding or other assets from foreign sources and that engage in political activities in Russia. The law obligated such entities to register with the Ministry of Justice and label all of the informational materials that they produced as being distributed by a foreign agent.

The concept of foreign media performing the functions a foreign agentwas introduced into a federal law in November 2017. This law on foreign mass media applies to legal entities incorporated in a foreign state, or to foreign unincorporated structures that distribute print, audio, audiovisual and other communications and materials intended for the general public and that receive funding and/or other assets from foreign sources. It does not prescribe criteria in relation to the content produced by the foreign agent, though it does provide the criteria for qualifying as a foreign agent - i.e. to engage in political activity.

The law on foreign mass media imposed the same obligations as those for non-profit organizations regarding the status of foreign agents, including:

  • labeling informational materials to indicate that they are being distributed by a foreign agent;
  • conducting an annual audit and submitting audit opinions to the competent authority; and
  • submitting to the competent authority reports on activities and membership of executive bodies every six months and, on a quarterly basis, documents about spending purposes.

The Russian Ministry of Justice maintains the register of foreign media performing the functions of a foreign agent and oversees the activities of these media.

The new law on foreign agents

The 2019 law amends the law on foreign mass media and expands the scope of its application. According to this new law, the status of foreign media performing the functions a foreign agent can now be applied to individuals. Information on these individuals is to be included in the register of foreign media performing the functions a foreign agent. Decisions about inclusions or removals from the register are to be rendered by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Under the new requirements, foreign media performing the functions of a foreign agent must also register as a Russian legal entity within a one-month period from the date of qualification as foreign media and foreign agent. Individuals qualifying in this regard must then label informational materials accordingly.

Failure to comply with these new requirements could lead to a court ruling blocking the offending organization or individual's informational resources and the distribution of its content.