Art: Maria Tolstova / Mediazona
At the end of the summer, Russia’s Ministry of Justice and censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, started a campaign targeted against people who were designated as “foreign agents.” According to Russian law, these people must mark any writing they produce (including social media posts) with a special disclaimer and submit quarterly reports on their finances and activities. The authorities are searching for violations of these rules, send cases to courts which immediately issue fines. After two fines like this, a criminal case can be initiated.
Mediazona explored the work of this campaigned and learned that dozens of people may face criminal charges.
The “foreign agents” law, which was initially adopted to target legal entities, is used against individuals since December of 2020. The first fines for violating the rules were issued a year later, but up until the summer of 2023 they weren’t a large scale phenomenon, research of court data conducted by Mediazona shows.
The exception here are cases initiated against Andrei Shary, head of Radio Liberty’s Russian service, which was declared a “foreign agent” back in 2017. As a representative of the organisation, he was fined 448 times; by 2023 these fines exceeded a total of 785,000,000 roubles.
The two government branches that are drawing up protocols on “foreign agents” are the Ministry of Justice and Roskomnadsor, the censorship agency. The former checks quarterly reports that “foreign agents” are obliged to file, the latter is monitoring social media for disclaimers.
Galina Arapova, director and senior lawyer at the Mass Media Defence Centre, says “foreign agents” only have to indicate one number, the sum of their expenses out of the funds they received from foreign sources, in the quarterly reports to the Ministry of Justice. “There’s also some kind of mysterious ‘organisational and methodical’ help from foreign sources, but no one really knows what that is,” Arapova adds.
Social media posts without a “foreign agent” disclaimer were the most common reason for an administrative case. But since July 2023, the Ministry of Justice became way more active. The peak in the number of cases for failing to submit a report could be observed in October, which is when “foreign agents” are supposed to file quarterly documents.
According to Arapova, a special department within the MoJ was created to monitor “foreign agents.” It’s called the Department for Protection of National Interests from External Influence. “So now obviously work is in full swing, they need to show how effective the new department is. The list of reasons for fines increased significantly since December 2022, control is getting stronger, and we are expecting a rise both in administrative and criminal cases.”
The mere number of protocols drawn up both by Roskomnadzor and the MoJ might not look as something out of the ordinary. After all, the total number of “foreign agents” is growing, and many of the individuals and organisations who were recently added to the list live abroad and won’t comply with demands of Russian authorities.
On average, 15-20 positions are being added to the registry of “foreign agents,” and as of 1 December 2023, there were 367 people there.
Despite that, since the summer of 2023, the MoJ and Roskomnadzor are focused on consecutive fines for “foreign agents” who already had at least one administrative offence. This could be the basis for bringing criminal charges.
When two court decisions on a fine take effect within a year, the third protocol can result in a case under Part 2 of Article 330.1 of the Criminal Code. The punishment is prison for up to two years. As data from the courts show, repeated protocols are issued extremely quickly.
“They are trying to slap me with a third fine for no foreign agent disclaimers,” feminist activist Daria Serenko recently tweeted. Apparently, back in September, two protocols against her were filed in a single day—and then another one in October. Her attempts to fight the first protocol were in vain.
Mediazona studied all of the data that was published by courts and calculated how many people had at least two “foreign agent” fines within a year. In recent months, this number grew exponentially, and 57 individuals are one step away from facing criminal charges.
Editor: Maxim Litavrin
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