By Nate Jones
Jones is the Freedom of Information Coordinator at the National Security Archive who is also currently working with the Freedom of Information Foundation in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
According to the Russian federal law 121-FZ, “On the Regulation of Noncommercial Organizations Acting as Foreign Agents,” Russian noncommercial organizations funded from abroad that engage in political activities must register as “foreign agents” no later than November 17, 2012. Institutions that register as “foreign agents” are required to submit biannual reports to the Russian government on their activities and submit to at least one yearly inspection by Russian authorities —special, “unscheduled inspections”can be conducted if the institutions are suspected of showing signs of “extremism.”
In response to this pending registration deadline, the Russian Freedom of Information Foundation–which describes itself as a “noncommercial organization”– has published its legal rationale explaining why it will not register as an “NGO foreign agent.” Moreover, the Freedom of Information Foundation writes that this rationale – based on a nuanced examination of the text of the Foreign Agent law and underpinned by Russian legal precedent– could be used as an argument in court by other organizations who do not wish to register as “foreign agents.”
According to the analysis of the Freedom of Information Foundation, the Foreign Agents Law requires that institutions register if they meet both of two conditions. First, they must receive money or other funding from a foreign source. Second, they must participate in the political activities of the Russian Federation, which the law defines as “activities that are aimed to change officials’ views on public policy, as well as the formation of public opinion for this purpose.”
While the Freedom of Information Foundation does receive funding from various foreign sources, it steadfastly denies that it is a political organization or that it is engaged in attempting to change the official public policy of the Russian Federation.
Rather, the Freedom of Information Foundation contends that it (and numerous other noncommercial institutions) is actually attempting to work in tandem with the government to implement the current laws of the Russian Foundation.
The Freedom of Information Foundation backs up this assertion by presenting an impressive list of Russian laws that explicitly state the government’s commitment to protecting human rights and promoting access to information. These include: The Constitution of the Russian Federation (1993, Article 2), The Concept of State National Policy (1996), The Doctrine of Information Security( 2000), which provides that Russia must “provide information to the public about the activities of the federal government of the Russian Federation,” The State Policy of Citizens’ Legal Literacy and Legal Awareness (2011), The Strategy for Developing an Information Society in the Russian Federation (2008), the federal law “On Access to Information about State Bodies and Local Government (2009),” and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975.
The Freedom of Information Foundation’s promulgation of this defense of the Foreign Agents Law is an important potential tool for the Russian noncommercial organizations threatened by this law. Indeed, audits and possible “unscheduled inspections” by the powerful Russian tax authorities will be more than a mere nuisance. Indeed, this imposition of heavy-handed Russian state authority could lead to the closure of already strained organizations which exist not to make a profit, but to improve the well-being of Russians.
The Russian government’s creation of a law forcing government audits upon organizations which receive money from beyond its borders and strive to change government policy appears retrograde and counter to the rights of access to information and freedom of speech. In contrast, the Freedom of Information Foundation’s defense of its refusal to register as a “foreign agent” –which will also likely be used by other institutions–is rational, well-argued, and novel. What kind of foreign agents, after all, would attempt to help the Russian government enact its professed domestic policy upon its citizens?
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