Law of the Week: Duma adopts amendments tightening and expanding ‘foreign agent’ legislation

Week-ending 25 December 2020

This week on 23 December 2020 the State Duma approved a bill in its third and final reading amending the so-called ‘foreign agent’ law to increase the reporting and auditing requirements for organisations and to enable the designation of individuals as ‘foreign agents.’

RFE/RL, 23 December 2020: The Russian parliament’s lower chamber has approved several controversial bills that human rights watchdogs and the opposition have said undermine democratic processes. Among the legislation approved by the State Duma on December 23 was a series of amendments to the controversial law on “foreign agents” that requires organizations that have received the designation to report their activities and face financial audits. The changes expand the scope of individuals and groups that can be designated “foreign agents,” introduce new restrictions and registration and reporting requirements, and oblige the media to note the designation whenever they mention these individuals or groups. The new law says individuals, including foreign journalists, involved in Russia’s political developments or collecting materials and data related to Russia’s defense or national security issues must be included on the list of foreign agents. It also says that individuals labeled as “foreign agents” would be banned from joining the civil service or holding a municipal government position, while forcing them to mark their letters to authorities and other material with a “foreign agent” label. Last month, Amnesty International slammed the proposed legislation saying it would “drastically limit and damage the work not only of civil society organizations that receive funds from outside Russia but many other groups as well.” Another bill related to “foreign agents” and approved on December 23 lays out a punishment of up to five years in prison for individuals or organizations labeled as foreign agents who fail to inform official entities about their status, and/or refuse to report their activities to Russian authorities.

RAPSI, 23 December 2020: The State Duma has approved in the third and final reading a bill criminalizing willful evasion of responsibility to present documents necessary for registration as a foreign agent, according to a statement published on the official website of the lower house of Russia’s Parliament. The document envisages punishments for failure to present the required data ranging from fines up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), or equal to the amount of salaries or other incomes of the person convicted for such a violation received over a period up to 2 years, or compulsory community service for up to 480 hours, or corrective labor for up to 2 years, or imprisonment for the same time, the statement reads.

Other legislation this week concerned:

Social media:

RAPSI, 20 December 2020: The State Duma Committee on Information Policy on Monday supported amendments to a bill on the social networks’ obligations to moderate banned information. Authors of the initiative propose to oblige moderators to delete child pornography, calls for suicide and extremism, articles on drug producing and ads of alcohol distance sale.  If the amendments are adopted, social media platforms must immediately restrict access to the prohibited information. If social networks fail to do it, corresponding information must be forwarded to the Russian communications agency Roskomnadzor. The watchdog then is to decide on the blocking of content.

Committee to Protect Journalists, 22 December 2020: Russian authorities have advanced measures to punish online libel, police the internet, and protect officials’ personal data since December 14, when international news websites published reports investigating the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, according to human rights news website Mediazonaand a media lawyer interviewed by CPJ. The joint investigation by Bellingcat and Russian news outlet The Insider, in cooperation with CNN and Germany’s Der Spiegel, alleged that Russian security services attempted to kill Navalny in August 2020. Russian officials dismissed the findings and denied involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, according to The Associated Press.

The Guardian, 23 December 2020: Russian authorities could gain powers to restrict access to US social media sites found to discriminate against Russian media, and to levy big fines on platforms that do not delete banned content, under bills passed by the parliament’s lower house. The authors of the two bills said infractions by YouTube and Facebook demonstrated the need for the legislation, which is part of a push to increase Russia’s internet sovereignty and has fuelled fears of creeping China-style controls. The first bill would allow Russia to restrict access to or fully block websites, following what lawmakers said were complaints from state outlets that their accounts were being treated with prejudice by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

The presidency:

The Guardian, 22 December 2020: Vladimir Putin has signed legislation that will grant former presidents of Russia lifetime immunity once they leave office. The bill, which was published online on Tuesday, gives former presidents and their families immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during their lifetime. They will also be exempt from questioning by police or investigators, as well as searches or arrests. The legislation was part of constitutional amendments approved this summer in a nationwide vote that allow Putin, 68, to remain president until 2036. Before the bill became law, former presidents were immune to prosecution only for crimes committed while in office.

The Moscow Times, 22 December 2020: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law Tuesday that allows former presidents to become senators for life when they leave office. The law is the latest legislative change regarding Russia’s ex-presidents amid continuing questions over Putin’s future after his current term limit expires in 2024. The law is also part of sweeping constitutional reforms allowing Putin to ignore current limits and run for two more six-year presidential terms. 

The Moscow Times, 23 December 2020: Russian lawmakers took first steps Wednesday to formally allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036. Current law limits the Russian presidency to two consecutive terms, requiring Putin, 68, to step down in 2024. But a clause within a set of constitutional reforms approved in a nationwide vote this summer allows Putin to ignore current limits and run for two more six-year terms. A bill submitted to Russian parliament last month officially resets the number of terms served by current and former presidents.  Members of the lower-house State Duma voted Wednesday in favor of the bill in its first of three readings. The draft law will then need backing from senators and a signature from Putin in order to become law, a step considered a formality for the Kremlin-backed legislature.

Secrecy of security and law enforcement personnel:

The Moscow Times, 23 December 2020: Russian lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday to ban the public dissemination of data about security and law enforcement members. The move follows leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s viral YouTube video of a phone call with one of his alleged poisoners. That agent and other purported Federal Security Service (FSB) agents’ identities were revealed by the investigative outlet Bellingcat, which regularly uses phone records and flight manifests obtained on the black market in its investigations. The latest piece of legislation prohibits the sharing of information about police and investigators as well as Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and FSB agents. The new law will protect security members’ personal data “regardless of direct threats to their security,” an explanatory note states. Previous legislation made it a criminal offense to share the security members’ data when doing so threatened their lives.

Meduza, 23 December 2020: This month, Russian lawmakers approved legislation that will allow the state to withhold information about the people who work in the judiciary, law enforcement, and regulatory oversight agencies — from the FSB to the Accounts Chamber (which itself compiles the transparency ratings for Russia’s federal agencies). We asked the authors of high-profile investigative reports how this new policy would have affected their research, and how they plan to continue their work once the bill is adopted.


RAPSI, 23 December 2020: The State Duma had approved in the third and final reading a bill on increased use of the Unified Biometric Identification System, Chairman of the Association of Russian Lawyers Vladimir Gruzdev told RAPSI on Wednesday. Banks collect biometrics, citizens may conduct this procedure on the voluntary basis. The system allows banks to open accounts, take deposits, or give credits to citizens without their personal appearance. Biometric data may be used by state bodies to identify citizens. In certain cases, state services may be provided without presenting passports, Gruzdev said.

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