Amend or repeal: how the law on foreign agents can be changed
On 3 February, experts discussed the possibility of reforming the legislation on foreign agents.
The meeting was organized by the Commission of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights.
The law on foreign agents is discriminatory, illegal, unconstitutional, and hinders the development of civil society, asserted Alexander Shishlov, head of the Yabloko faction in the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg. According to Shishlov, despite the fact that those who previously supported the bill are now in favour of amending it, changes are not likely to be introduced.
“Improving certain details of a piece of legislation that is fundamentally wrong will not improve the situation,” he stated.
Grigory Okhotin, the co-founder of the news agency OVD-Info, which has itself been designated a foreign agent by the Ministry of Justice, is advocating to abolish the bill completely, maintaining that the law causes irreparable harm to the non-profit sector, as well as to the entire state and society.
“As it stands, a CSO that is listed as a foreign agent is stripped of all domestic rights, and, as a result, thousands of people are left without social assistance and protection. The entire non-profit sector lives in fear of being entered into the foreign agent registry, and as such, organisations are unable to plan for the future. The harm of the bill is self-evident, and its introduction hasn’t benefitted anyone. The only solution is to stop fighting your own citizens and to repeal this law,” says Okhotin.
Unfortunately, there is a real stigma surrounding those listed as foreign agents. It is the modern equivalent of labelling a person or organisation a foreign spy, says Nyuta Federmesser, the founder of Vera, a charitable foundation for hospices, and a member of the central staff of the All-Russian People’s Front.
Organisations which are declared foreign agents have a reduced flow of income, and government agencies refuse to offer them grants. As a result, the credibility of CSOs is undermined, and leaves many to struggle without any form of assistance, believes Federmesser.
“Moreover,” she states, “the threat of being listed as a foreign agent has caused many to simply abandon the sector, and new initiatives that could change the quality of life for vulnerable people no longer have the opportunity to come to fruition.”
According to Federmesser, the most important thing to minimise the harm caused by the law is to clarify the concept of political activity.
“The courts must first prove the relationship between foreign financing and political activity, and the organisation must then have the opportunity to defend itself against the claim.”
Dr Marina Shishkina, Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg and member of the Union of Journalists of St. Petersburg also believes that it would be better if this law had never been introduced. However, she believes that at this stage it is unlikely the law will be repealed. Accordingly, the focus should be on proposing amendments to the bill.
“One of the most pressing amendments is to ensure that an organisation can only be listed as a foreign agent after a court decision and with due notification.”
As for the media, they should be able to refute the data on foreign financing before a trial. Furthermore, if a media agency has not received any foreign funding within a year, they should be removed from the registry. To further improve the process, a list should be drawn up to clarify sources of funding that cannot be considered foreign financing, including grants and awards.
Some of the suggested amendments are quite conservative, while others will require a more radical improvement to the legislation, says the head of the Human Rights Commission on the Development of Civil Society Institutions Svetlana Makovetskaya. She claims that the HRC will continue to collate all the proposals on improving the law on foreign agents and use them in future discussions.