Russia designates Radio Free Europe and Voice of America as 'foreign agents'

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia designated Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) as “foreign agents” on Tuesday, a move aimed at complicating their work in retaliation for what Moscow says is unacceptable U.S. pressure on Russian media.

Vehicles drive past the wall and towers of the Kremlin in central Moscow, Russia November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russia’s broadside is likely to further sour battered U.S.-Russia relations and is part of the fallout from allegations that the Kremlin meddled in the U.S. presidential election last year in Donald Trump’s favor, something Moscow denies.

U.S. intelligence officials accused the Kremlin of using Russian media it finances to influence U.S. voters, and Russian state broadcaster RT last month reluctantly complied with a U.S. request to register a U.S.-based affiliate as a “foreign agent” under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.

The Kremlin called the move an attack on free speech and says the new media law in Russia, which Western critics have called a disproportionate response, is retaliation.

Moscow’s response was widely trailed. Russian lawmakers rushed through the necessary legislation last month and President Vladimir Putin signed off on it on Nov. 25.

Russia’s justice ministry said in a statement on its website on Tuesday it had now formally designated U.S. government-sponsored VOA and RFE/RL, along with seven separate Russian or local-language news outlets run by RFE/RL, as “fulfilling the role of foreign agents”.

RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said in a video statement his organization was committed to continuing its journalistic work in Russia, but was expecting “even more limitations on the work of our company”.

“So far the full nature of these limitations is unknown,” said Kent. “We will study carefully all communications from the ministry and other Russian official organizations.”

VOA Director Amanda Bennett told Reuters her organization also thought it was unclear what new curbs it would face.

The new designation subjects affected U.S.-backed news outlets to the same requirements that are applied to foreign-funded non-governmental organizations under a 2012 law.

Under that law, “foreign agents” must include in any information they publish or broadcast to Russian audiences a mention of their “foreign agent” designation.

They also must apply for inclusion in a government register, submit regular reports on their sources of funding, on their objectives, on how they spend their money, and who their managers are.

They can be subject to spot checks by the authorities to make sure they comply with the rules, according to the 2012 law, which has forced some NGOs to close.

One of the seven outlets on the justice ministry list provides news on Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, one on Siberia, and one on the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region.

Another covers provincial Russia, one is an online TV station, another covers the mostly Muslim region of Tatarstan, and the other is a news portal that fact-checks the statements of Russian officials.

Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Denis Pinchuk and Katya Golubkova; Editing by Christian Lowe and Mark Heinrich