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RFE/RL Welcomes European Court Decision Prioritizing Challenge Of Russia’s ‘Foreign Agent’ Laws

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has welcomed a decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to accept, on a priority basis, the legal case that the Moscow bureau of the broadcaster brought to it last month against the Russian government.

RFE/RL said in a statement on June 17 that the decision, taken by the Strasbourg-based court a day earlier, has now also been formally communicated to the government of Russia.

The ECHR’s decision to grant “priority” status – which it reserves for the most important, serious, and urgent cases – within a month of its filing means that the case will likely proceed more quickly than ordinary cases.

The Russian government has until October 5 to submit its response in the case to the ECHR, the international court of the Council of Europe, Europe’s main human rights forum.

In their legal filing, RFE/RL and Andrey Shary, the general director of RFE/RL’s Russian operations, are challenging Russia’s “foreign agent” laws, which have resulted in fines worth millions of dollars being imposed on them since January 2021.

The law mandates that RFE/RL label itself a “foreign agent,” a term that in Russian, RFE/RL says, connotes that it is an enemy of the state. The label must be placed on all of its media content in the country or severe financial, and potentially criminal, punishment could be levied.

The case argues that Russia’s actions violate the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In addition, it says that left unchecked, Russia’s campaign of imposing severe punishments on RFE/RL over its stand on labeling its content will have a “profound chilling effect” on what is left of the country’s independent media.

In recent weeks, Russia has already added independent media outlets such as the Latvia-based Meduza, Moscow-based First Anticorruption Media (PASMI), and Netherlands-based VTimes.io to its list of “foreign agents.” VTimes closed its operations on June 12 due to the designation, saying it made the venture economically unviable.

“The clear intent of the Kremlin’s campaign against RFE/RL and other independent media in Russia is to force these outlets to either abandon freedom of speech and journalistic integrity, or to abandon the profession,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in the statement.

“Given the imminent risk of irreparable harm to RFE/RL’s operations in Russia and the importance of the issue of information choice for the Russian people, we welcome the fact that the European Court of Human Rights has given the case priority,” he added.

Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.

Later modifications targeted foreign-funded media. In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL’s Russian Service on the list, along with six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services and Current Time. The Russian Service of VOA was also added to the list.

Since January, Russian regulators have issued hundreds of administrative cases against RFE/RL and Shary in Russian courts, carrying fines that may eventually total more than $3 million.

Russian court bailiffs have visited RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau twice to notify the organization about enforcement proceedings for the fines arising from the broadcaster’s refusal to label its content.

RFE/RL’s Russian bank accounts have also been frozen by court order. RFE/RL has appealed every one of the hundreds of cases, but not a single court has upheld the legal challenges or decreased the levels of fines imposed by Roskomnadzor, the Russian telecommunications watchdog.

U.S. President Joe Biden raised the issue of Kremlin pressure against RFE/RL’s Russian-language services at a June 16 summit with President Vladimir Putin.

RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Each week, nearly 7 million people access RFE/RL’s news portals in Russia.

Last year, Russia passed a law giving its national legislation precedence over international treaties and rulings from international bodies in cases when they conflict with the Russian constitution, in what critics said was a move intended to override ECHR rulings.

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