MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court fined Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Thursday for violating a “foreign agent” law, a move the U.S.-government sponsored broadcaster described as the latest step in a campaign against its operations.
The court reached the guilty verdict before a summit in Finland between presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on July 16, and is likely to deepen Washington’s concerns about how U.S. media are treated in Russia.
Russia designated RFE/RL and Voice of America as “foreign agents” in December, a step aimed at complicating their work in retaliation for what Moscow said was unacceptable U.S. pressure on Russian media.
The designation subjected RFE/RL to the same requirements as foreign-funded non-governmental organisations which, since 2012, must include in any information they publish or broadcast to Russian audiences a mention of their “foreign agent” status.
They must also apply for inclusion in a government register, and submit regular reports covering their sources of funding, their objectives, how they spend their money, and who their managers are.
RFE/RL said the Moscow court had found it guilty of not complying fully with the “foreign agent” law when it came to filing reports to the authorities and had fined it 100,000 roubles ($1,585).
Although the fine was not large for an organisation of RFE/RL’s size, it said that violations of the law could trigger criminal charges against the broadcaster and its staff in Russia.
“We see the prosecution of RFE/RL in a Russian court as a significant escalation in a campaign targeting our operations in Russia,” RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said in a statement.
Kent said that Russia had so far designated only media funded by the U.S. Congress as “foreign agents”.
“We view the law as conceived exclusively to target us,” said Kent. “U.S. laws guarantee our editorial independence. Suggestions that we are agents of any government are false. They have already affected our ability to gather news in Russia, and they create danger for our people there.”
RFE/RL was founded in the Cold War and now aims its local language services at a number of countries including other former Soviet republics.
Members of the State Duma, the Russian lower house of parliament, are examining legislation that would allow “foreign agent” status to be extended to individuals too, raising the possibility that RFE/RL’s employees could be included.
editing by David Stamp