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Russia has branded nine media organisations “foreign agents”, in an escalation of a long-running battle with the US over state-funded media organisations.

The decision listed Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, both funded by the US government, on a register of media “performing the functions of a foreign agent”.

It could lead to the organisations, and a handful of affiliated Russian-language outlets, losing their reporting credentials, being forced to announce themselves as foreign agents, or even being banned in Russia.

The affiliates include Radio Free Europe’s news outlets dedicated to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine, and a television channel run jointly by Radio Free Europe and Voice of America called Current Time TV.

A vote on the measures is expected next week.

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Russian officials said the moves were retaliatory, and they were described by state sovereignty protection committee chairman Andrey Klimov as “completely reciprocal in response to the oppression of the Russian media in the US”.

Kremlin-funded broadcaster Russia Today was forced to register as a foreign agent in the United States in November, and credentials allowing its journalists to report from Capitol Hill were withdrawn.

The decisions followed a January intelligence agency report that described the outlet as a “state-run propaganda machine” and accused it of helping the Kremlin interfere with the 2016 election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in November that allowed the government to list foreign media operating in the country, in what was claimed to be retaliation for the US measures.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during his visit to the new studio complex of the state-owned English-language Russia Today television network in Moscow, on June 11, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ POOL/ YURI KOCHETKOV (Photo credit should read YURI KOCHETKOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Image: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed a law on foreign press last month

The legislation has been condemned by rights groups including Reporters Without Borders, which called the legislation an “eye-for-eye response” that would seriously damage media freedoms.

“It is highly regrettable that the US authorities started this,” said Johann Bihr, RSF’s head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Russian sources, including Mr Klimov who spoke to Russia Today, insisted that the list announced on Tuesday would not be expanded.

But Mr Bihr told Sky News there were dangers it could be the beginning of further restrictions. He said the targeting of US state media outlets in Russia could legitimise future restrictions on both international and Russian outlets.

“This is very vague and it really opens the way to broad application,” he said.

Russia Today is listed as a foreign agent in the United States

Image: Russia Today is listed as a foreign agent in the United States

Similar legislation has been directed at NGOs (non-governmental organisations) operating in Russia since 2012, and huge fines that have forced dozens of human and civil rights groups to shut down.

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In a video statement, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Tom Kent said it was unclear how the organisation would be affected by the moves and that it would “study carefully” communications from Russia.

“We remain committed to continuing our journalistic work in the interest of providing accurate and objective news to our Russian speaking audience,” he said.

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