Russia's Justice Ministry has warned several U.S. government-funded news outlets they could be designated as foreign agents under a new bill that has yet to be fully approved.
The bill, endorsed by Russia's lower house on Wednesday, comes in response to U.S. demands that Russian state-funded RT TV register as a foreign agent. It needs to be approved by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin to become law.
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Putin has harshly criticized the U.S. demand regarding RT as an attack on the freedom of speech and has warned that Russia would retaliate.
The loosely phrased Russian bill says that any government- or private-funded foreign news outlets could be declared foreign agents, leaving it to the Justice Ministry to single them out.
The ministry said Thursday it has notified the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, along with its regional outlets, that they could be designated as foreign agents under the new law.
Media outlets named foreign agents will have to publicly declare themselves as such and regularly provide detailed information about their funding, finances and staffing — the same stringent requirements that have been previously applied to foreign-funded Russian NGOs, which prompted some to shut down.
Joanna Levison, director of media and public affairs at RFE/RL, said Wednesday it had received the ministry's letters that said "we may be subject to restrictions under the 'foreign agent' law."
VOA Director Amanda Bennett said "VOA cannot comment on and will not speculate on any proposed actions by any other entities."
"The Voice of America is an independent news source required by law to be accurate, objective and comprehensive," she said. "We remain committed to our mission to provide independent and reliable programming to our global audiences."
Harlem Desir, a media freedom representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Thursday he is concerned by the moves by both the U.S. Justice Department and Russian authorities.
"The requirements to register as 'foreign agents' will obviously impose additional administrative burdens upon the concerned media organizations and would stigmatize them and their journalists," the OSCE quoted him as saying.
Kate de Pury in Moscow contributed to this report.