Strasbourg, 06.07.2021 – The recent amendments to Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation take a clear direction towards expanding the scope of entities and individuals qualifying as “foreign agents”, as well as obligations, restrictions and sanctions imposed, says the Council of Europe’s body of constitutional legal experts, the Venice Commission, in a new opinion published today.
The amendments introduced to the Russian State Duma between 10 and 23 November 2020 constitute serious violations of basic human rights, including the freedoms of association and expression, the right to privacy, the right to participate in public affairs, as well as the prohibition of discrimination, the Venice Commission stresses. They tend to use vague and overly broad terminology and fail to have a sufficient relation to the declared aims of increasing transparency and safeguarding civil rights, freedoms, and interests of the society and the State. The Commission “warns against the significant chilling effect that the recent reforms are likely to have on the free exercise of the civil and political rights which are vital for an effective democracy.”
The Venice Commission recommends that the Russian authorities abandon the special regime of registration, reporting, and public disclosure requirements for associations, media outlets and individuals receiving “foreign support”, including the related administrative and criminal sanctions.
Alternatively, the Venice Commission calls on the Russian authorities to thoroughly revise not only the most recent amendments but the entire body of its “foreign agent” legislation by significantly narrowing the legal definition of a “foreign agent” in order to serve the stated aim of transparency. Specifically, the notions of “political activities” and “foreign support” should be abandoned in favour of indicators that would reliably track objectionable forms of foreign interference.
At a minimum, the stigmatising and misleading “foreign agent” label should be abandoned in favour of a more neutral and accurate designation. This new designation should not be used as a criterion for banning individuals from entering public service. Likewise, non-commercial organisations (NCOs) and media outlets so designated should not be prohibited from participating in campaign activities.
Criminal sanctions, including especially compulsory labour and the deprivation of liberty, should not be applied to breaches of registration, reporting and public disclosure requirements for “foreign agents”, even under a narrow definition of that designation. Further, the penalty of liquidation of NCOs should be reserved for extreme cases of violations threatening democracy.
The opinion was prepared by the Venice Commission upon the request of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It is based, inter alia, on online meetings held in May 2021 with representatives of the Russian Federation Council, the State Duma, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Ministry of Justice, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), as well as with civil society.
This is the second opinion prepared by the Venice Commission on the Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation. In the first opinion adopted in June 2014 the Venice Commission already criticised the 2012 “Law on Foreign Agents”: it recommended abandoning the stigmatising term, and stressed that the legitimate aim of ensuring transparency of non-commercial organisations receiving funding from abroad cannot justify measures which hamper the activities of organisations operating in the field of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Tatiana Baeva, Spokesperson/Media officer, tel. +33 3 88 41 21 41
Council of Europe, Media Assistance Unit
Tel. +33 (0)3 88 41 25 60 - www.coe.int - [email protected]