'Sword Of Damocles': With First Legal Charges, Russia's 'Foreign Agent' Law Bares Its Teeth

Pyotr Manyakhin, a Novosibirsk-based journalist with the investigative-journalism outlet Proyekt, was designated a "foreign agent" by the Russian government in July. He recently filed his first obligatory financial accounting, a 45-page report that he says cost him considerable time and aggravation.

"It is essentially an accounting of my expenditures," he explained to Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "Say I went into a store and bought some bread and meat. I have to report to the Justice Ministry, and I have to account for where the money came from that I used to buy the bread and where the money came from that I used to buy the meat…. That is, you have to remember how every single ruble ended up in your account."

If a report is deemed erroneous, a designated "foreign agent" could face a fine of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,250) or a prison term from two to five years.

In comments regarding Russia's "foreign agent" legislation on October 21, President Vladimir Putin repeated the Kremlin's disputed argument that the United States has similar legislation that "goes all the way to felony liability."

"It's not like that here," Putin claimed.

However, while the Russian "foreign agent" laws do not themselves include criminal penalties, designees can face criminal charges and years in prison under other laws if they fail to comply properly with the requirements set out in the "foreign agent" legislation.

Media defense lawyer Galina Arapova, herself twice branded a "foreign agent" by the government, described the designation as a "sword of Damocles" that could at any moment bring down severe consequences.

"Every three months you have to account to the Justice Ministry," she said. "It takes less time to do your tax returns. And in addition, it is an extremely unpleasant intrusion into your personal life."

Understanding the requirements of Russia's frequently amended "foreign agent" laws is difficult, even for lawyers, Arapova added. (The requirements for "foreign agent" designees and links to the forms they are required to complete and submit can be found here.)

"How to get through this labyrinth is very difficult for the layman to understand," she said.

Inclusion on one of the Russian government's "foreign agent" lists does not mean that a person or an organization has done anything illegal. However, failure to comply with the laws' requirements following the designation could have serious consequences.

On October 12, news appeared that the first administrative case had been filed against a designated "foreign agent." Activist Stepan Petrov, leader of the nongovernmental organization Yakutia-Our Opinion and head of the regional branch of the For Human Rights NGO, was added to the "foreign agent-mass media" list in August.

This month, he received a summons for allegedly violating the law, although the nature of his supposed violation was not disclosed. He faces a fine of up to 10,000 rubles ($142).

Later the same day, an administrative case was opened against prominent Moscow-based human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, the 80-year-old head of For Human Rights. The Russian state monitoring agency Roskomnadzor accused him of failing to include the mandatory disclaimer that information was produced or distributed by a designated "foreign agent" on 20 Facebook posts, two Instagram posts, and 13 Twitter posts.

Ponomaryov was even cited for failing to include the required text when he changed his profile photograph on Facebook.

"I can see now that they are trying to make it difficult for me to be on Facebook," Ponomaryov told RFE/RL. "Even reposts have to be accompanied by the marking, which is complete nonsense. I most likely will stop reposting things, but instead will write more complete posts instead of reposting. They are stimulating me to work more."

Repeated violations of the provisions of the "foreign agent" laws could lead to criminal charges.

"I am not going to intentionally run toward a criminal case, but if they open one, then that is my fate," he added.

Liza Surnacheva is an editor with Current Time and a designated "foreign agent." She has managed to register the legal entity required to file the reports to the Justice Ministry and is working with lawyers to submit her first financial report. She says the main effect on her life so far has been dealing with the marking of social-media posts.

"I have to mark everything that people post on my page in Facebook," Surnacheva said. "That is, if someone wishes me a happy birthday, I have to mark it or the Roskomnadzor bots might count it as an unmarked publication. If I post that I am selling a cupboard, I have to mark that, as well…. If I register on a dating site, I have to mark in my profile that I am designated."

Denis Kamalyagin, a journalist from Pskov, was one of the first individuals designated a "foreign agent" back in December 2020.

"I wasn't afraid from the beginning, and I'm even less afraid now," he told RFE/RL. "The more of us who are listed, the more inspiration I feel because five people can't defend themselves from the state; even 100 people probably can't. But when there are dozens of major media outlets, the best media outlets, then it isn't so scary. A sort of a team is forming."

Lawyer Arapova says the law is like a weapon: It was adopted in order to be fired.

"They passed it in order to use it," she said. "What they want to use it for is not a legal question but a matter of their political intentions. I think they are doing it to prevent people from speaking out, to block the free distribution of information, and to ensure there are no more critical statements about the authorities."

The initial administrative cases, she says, are something of a warning shot for journalists, media outlets, and all Russian citizens.

"Everyone now has to decide for themselves -- either they are free people who have the right to free expression, to be international experts, to work for foreign media companies," she said. "Or they can go to some village and never speak publicly about politics, not stick their noses into anything or work with anybody. That is the choice."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Lyudmila Savitskaya and Current Time correspondent Daria Ali-zade.