MOSCOW — Russia’s lower house of parliament on Wednesday banned Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from entering its premises, a day after the Russian government declared the organizations “foreign agents.”
The 413-1 vote by the Russian State Duma to ban the outlets came as Moscow followed through onits promise to retaliate for similar U.S. actions against the English-language Russian network RT, which Russian leaders characterize as an assault on freedom of the press.
Congress rescinded the accreditation of RT, previously known as Russia Today, last month after the Justice Department required that it register as a foreign agent under a 1938 law because of its alleged role in interfering in U.S. affairs and the 2016 presidential campaign by pushing the Kremlin’s agenda.
On Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Justice published a list of nine outlets, which includes Russian-language subsidiaries of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that cover the Caucasus region of Russia, Crimea, Siberia, and two predominantly Muslim regions in central Russia, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Also designated were Current Time TV, which is produced by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Factograph, a website produced by Radio Liberty.
The affiliates are not banned from the Duma, however.
The ministry statement did not mention any specific restrictions on the media outlets.
RT disputes that it is an agent of the Russian government, arguing that it offers alternatives to mainstream news coverage, and Russian leaders vowed to respond in kind.
“We didn’t start this theater of the absurd,” Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Monday at a Duma hearing. “But we have to respond to it.”
Russia’s law on foreign agents, which in the past has been used on nongovernmental organizations critical of the Kremlin, requires the organizations to label their publications as coming from a foreign agent. The Russian government recently designated a union of truckers protesting highway tolls as a foreign agent.
A bill extending that law to media organizations was signed by President Vladimir Putin last month.
On Tuesday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quoted its president, Thomas Kent, as saying he had received no details about what the foreign agent designation will mean.
“So far, the full nature of these limitations is unknown. We will study carefully all communications from the ministry and other Russian official organizations,” Kent said in a video statement. “At the same time, we remain committed to continuing our journalistic work in the interests of providing accurate and objective news to our Russian-speaking audiences.”
Voice of America and Radio Free Europe were created during the Cold War to broadcast news to the closed societies of the Soviet Union and the Communist countries in its orbit.
Russian leaders say that in the drama surrounding RT, they are the ones defending democracy.
“We are not interested in limiting freedom of speech and the rights of foreign journalists,” said Olga Savastyanova, who heads the Duma committee that proposed the ban on the U.S. media outlets. She said the lower house was forced to make the move by “unfair, undemocratic” decisions by Congress that “violate international principles of human rights,” motivated by “fear of the objective information and truth produced by our journalists.”
The upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, passed a similar decision on Tuesday to bar U.S. journalists working for foreign-agent media outlets from visiting the upper house of the Russian parliament.