Foreign-funded media outlets that refuse to register as foreign agents under legislation drafted by Russian lawmakers would be ejected from the country, a senior legislator says.
State Duma deputy speaker Pyotr Tolstoi described the draft legislation to the Interfax news agency on November 14, a day after state-funded Russian channel RT announced that it had registered under the U.S. foreign agent law.
Moscow alleges that RT and state-funded news agency 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.
In the weeks since RT said the U.S. Justice Department had instructed it to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), Russia has been working on legislation that would enable it to designate foreign-funded media "foreign agents."
Amendments that would serve that purpose "are ready," Interfax quoted Tolstoi, who was tapped by Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin last week to coordinate the efforts in the lower parliament house, as saying.
As Tolstoi described them, the amendments to Russian legislation governing the media would enable the government to label any foreign-based or foreign-funded media outlet a "foreign agent."
Media outlets that are "registered in another state or receive financial or other resources from foreign structures...or from Russian companies with foreign financing may be deemed foreign agents regardless of their organizational or legal form," he said.
Tolstoi said that media outlets that refuse requests to register "will stop working on the territory of the Russian Federation."
Tolstoi did not say when the Duma would debate the proposed amendments, which would need to be passed in three votes in the lower house and one in the upper house before going to President Vladimir Putin for final approval.
The scope of Russia's current "foreign agents" law, which Kremlin critics and civil-society activists say has been used to silence dissent and discourage a free exchange of ideas, does not include media outlets.
A senior lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party, Andrei Isayev, said on November 13 that Radio/Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Voice of America (VOA), CNN, and German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle were among media organizations that could be declared foreign agents in Russia once the legislation is in place.
The developments come as ties between the United States continue to be severely strained over issues including Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine and its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on November 14 that "our relations are degrading day after day" and "have reached the lowest point in recent decades," but added that "we still have contacts and can discuss certain issues."
RT and Sputnik have been accused by U.S. intelligence agencies of spreading disinformation as part of a Russian government effort to influence the election.
U.S. officials say that 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."
Russia's moves to take action against U.S. media come ahead of a March 2018 presidential election in which Putin is widely expected to seek a new six-year term.
The Kremlin's control over the media and political levers, along with his popularity, make his victory a foregone conclusion, but he would be constitutionally barred from running again in 2024.