MOSCOW — Russian lawmakers on Tuesday proposed sweeping legislation that could designate nearly all foreign media in the country as "foreign agents," a move to retaliate for a similar U.S. requirement aimed at Russia's state-funded RT television station.
The legislation, in the form of legal amendments that lawmakers are expected to approve Wednesday, represents a significant expansion in a tit-for-tat targeting of foreign media following allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Under the new measures, the Russian Ministry of Justice could require any media organizations in the country that receive foreign funding, whether from governments or private individuals, to join a registry, issue special disclaimers on articles and submit financial reports under penalty of fines or a possible ban on operations.
The move comes in response to a U.S. Justice Department requirement that RT, formerly named Russia Today, register as a foreign agent due to its alleged role in interfering in U.S. affairs by pushing the Kremlin's agenda.
Russian lawmakers and other public officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claimed Tuesday that they were forced to respond with stricter regulations of foreign media in Russia.
"It's not we who started this, but we can't just swallow this gross violation of democratic norms, international law and freedom of speech, and we have to give a mirrored response," said Valentina Matviyenko, head of Russia's upper house of parliament, in remarks carried by the Interfax news service.
Russia denies it meddled in the 2016 election, and RT has accused the U.S. 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."
"The U.S. government propaganda machine has started persecuting Russian media," Matviyenko said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking Saturday in Danang, Vietnam, promised a "tit-for-tat response" against U.S. media. The version of the bill he saw then "may seem too harsh, but it's natural," he said.
The Russian law may affect considerably more outlets than the U.S. FARA legislation, which requires registration by specific foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other agencies receiving government funding. Russia's amendments to its own NGO "foreign agent" laws would allow the Justice Ministry to include any media outlet receiving funding from abroad, regardless of whether that source is private or public.
Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said foreign media organizations identified by the Justice Ministry would be forced to register as foreign agents, then provide financial accounts and label their reports as produced by foreign agents. Foreign media that do not register when requested can lose the right to work in Russia, he told journalists Tuesday.
It is not yet clear which outlets the law will affect. Russian lawmakers have publicly named the U.S. state-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, the German state-funded Deutsche Welle and the privately owned television network CNN as possible targets. State-media journalists have mentioned other news organizations, including The Washington Post and the New York Times, in connection with the law.
The implementation of the law will be carried out by the Russian Justice Ministry, which already maintains a registry of "foreign agent" NGOs. Lawmakers declined to say how news websites published in foreign countries would be expected to label their materials under the "foreign agent" legislation. The Ministry of Justice would decide that, they said.
Russian lawmakers said they hoped the bill would be ready for Putin's signature before the end of the month.