The lower house of Russia’s parliament has adopted in their second reading amendments to the law on the mass media that would authorize the government to designate media outlets receiving funding from abroad as "foreign agents."
The State Duma approved the amendments unanimously on November 15, after speaker Vyacheslav Volodin emphasized to deputies that the bill was a "symmetrical response" to what he described as U.S. pressure against Russian journalists.
"The measure will in no way affect freedom of speech in Russia," deputy speaker Pyotr Tolstoi said immediately before the vote. He said the bill will not affect Russian media that are partially financed by foreign capital.
Duma lawmakers must approve the measure in a third and final reading, an act that is considered a mere formality, before the bill is sent to the upper chamber for consideration. The legislation must then be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.
The bill was approved with 409 of 450 deputies voting in favor, with no objections and no official abstentions. No deputies spoke out in opposition to the proposed legislation, which is expected to affect international media outlets such as Radio/Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, CNN, and German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
Articles and broadcasts by registered media must be accompanied by a disclaimer informing audiences of the outlet's status as a "foreign agent." It is unclear if the Justice Ministry will be able to shut down foreign-funded media outlets that refuse to register themselves as foreign agents.
The Duma also approved in the second reading amendments to the mass-media law that would allow the extrajudicial blocking of websites that the Russian government deemed "undesirable."
Currently, 11 international nonprofit organizations have been declared "undesirable" in Russia, but none of their websites have been blocked.
Earlier, Amnesty International said the Russian authorities would "tighten their stranglehold" on the press if they adopted the measure.
The London-based media watchdog said in a November 15 statement that the bill would impose "onerous obligations to declare full details of their funding, finances, and staffing."
"This legislation strikes a serious blow to what was already a fairly desperate situation for press freedom in Russia," said Denis Krivosheyev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at the London-based media watchdog.
Krivosheyev said independent media outlets and journalists in Russia face "reprisals and risk attacks on an almost daily basis," adding that many of them have been "forced out of the mainstream Russian media space."
"This latest legislation takes obstacles for media working in Russia to a whole new level," he added.
Tolstoi on November 14 said foreign-funded news organizations that refused to register as foreign agents under the proposed legislation would be barred from operating in the country.
Moscow alleges that the state-funded Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik have come under increasing pressure in the United States in the past year, and has vowed to respond by targeting U.S. media in Russia.
On November 13, RT television registered with the U.S. Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), joining at least six other foreign media outlets that are currently registered, including Canada's CBC, Japan's NHK, and the China Daily.
A U.S. intelligence finding in January asserted that RT and Sputnik spread disinformation as part of a Russian-government effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Moscow has denied any such effort.
U.S. officials say that the existing Russian law regarding foreign agents differs from FARA, which was passed in 1938 specifically to counter fears of Nazi propaganda and disinformation being spread in the United States.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said last month that the need for registration under FARA "is simply triggered when an entity or an individual engages in political activity."
The developments come as ties between the United States and Russia continue to be severely strained over issues including Moscow's alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election last year and its military intervention in Ukraine.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on November 14 that "our relations are degrading day by day" and "have reached the lowest point in recent decades."