By: Jhanvi Tayal
The freedom to express one’s opinion is something which is usually taken for granted in most countries but in the rest, being vocal and critical about your opinions comes at a price. Words have consequences that determine your fate for the rest of your life. Veteran Rights activist lev Ponomaryov along with four other individuals are experiencing the grunt of this dilemma. They all have been added as ‘foreign agents’ in the list of media of the Russian Ministry of Justice. It is the first instance where individuals were added to the list of foreign agents otherwise the legislation has mostly been used against media outlets initially. The list contains the names of the media outlets such as Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America, and a Czech outlet.
Russia primarily passed a law allowing it to label foreign funded NGO’s and right groups as foreign agents if they were allegedly engaged in political activity in 2012. The term ‘foreign agents’ has been viewed in a negative light since the Soviet era. This law deliberates foreign entities such as NGO’s to label themselves as foreign agents during entering, communicating or interacting with citizens of Russia. It was amended to include individuals who communicate with foreign media outlets, independent journalists and bloggers in 2019.
On December 28, 2020, five individuals namely right activist Lev Ponomarev, 79, a long time critic of President Vladimir Putin , Lyudmila Savitskaya, Sergey Markelov, Denis Kamalyagin and Daria Apakhonchich were added to the list of media ‘foreign agents’. The rest of them were human rights activists and journalists contributing their views to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. The company itself was added to the list in February 2020. Rights group believe that the law is open to be abused by those in power and has been used to suppress discord and harass civil society groups.
Though, individuals have been earlier fined for violating NGO laws, it is the first time that they were added to the list of foreign agents. This makes a total of 17 organizations and individuals on the list, out of which 7 were added in 2020.
Ponomaryov in his statement to the Interfax was unsure of the effect of this designation on him and was surprised on being added to the list despite being a non-journalist. The individuals and groups designated as foreign agents by the Justice Ministry can be subjected to spot checks and exposed to bureaucratic scrutiny.