On 22 November 2021, ARTICLE 19 and Media Defence submitted an amicus brief to the European Court of Human Rights in a case concerning the prosecution of media organisations under the Russian so-called ‘foreign agent’ laws. ARTICLE 19 has long criticised this type of law for their failure to comply with international human rights law. We also believe the case should be considered in the context of the current situation in Russia, where harassment and restrictions on the media are increasing and these ‘foreign agent’ laws are increasingly abused.
The applicants in The New Times LLC and others v. Russia are two media organisations that were designated as ‘foreign agents’ under Russia’s controversial ‘foreign agent’ legislation because they received funding from outside Russia. Although the foreign agents law, adopted in 2012, can, on the face of it, be directed at organisations engaging in ‘political activities,’ it is written in broad and vague terms and applied in an arbitrary manner, including against international media outlets and NGOs.
Russia is not the only country with ‘foreign agent’ laws; several other European countries adopted this type of legislation. Their adoption has been justified by the need to prevent foreign interference in domestic affairs, national security and to ensure accountability. Hence, this case is important because the European Court will consider the extent to which such laws are permissible as well as the impact they may have on the right to freedom of expression and press freedom.
In the intervention, ARTICLE 19 and Media Defence argue the following:
- Although there might be legitimate concerns about foreign influence democratic decision-making, any restrictions on freedom of expression must meet the requirements of international human rights laws and should not pursue ulterior motives. The Russian foreign agent legislation contains unduly vague terminology and lack of legal certainty concerning the scope of its application.
- In Russia, there is a clear pattern of designating as foreign agents and subsequently persecuting those organisations and individuals who are critical of the government. The ‘foreign agent’ type laws are used for improper purposes to restrict human rights. Journalists, bloggers, lawyers and activists can be labelled as “media performing the functions of foreign agents”, especially if they represent dissenting voices trying to hold the government to account.
- The Russian foreign agents law places an excessive and disproportionate burden on the media. It strains their resources by imposing extreme financial sanctions and inevitably produces an extensive chilling effect on the freedom of expression in the country.
- The case should also be considered in context of an alarming increase of restrictions and mistreatment of independent media and journalists. These are facing many types of repression from legal persecutions to attacks and even killing with impunity. The foreign agent law contributes to these repressions. Since April 2021, at least 30 journalists and media outlets have been labelled ‘foreign agents’ by the Russian Ministry of Justice forcing some journalists to flee Russia to avoid criminal prosecution and undermining the mere possibility of public discourse.