On Thursday, the Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) petitioned the European Court of Human Rights on an urgent basis, asking the court to grant interim measures ordering the Russian Federation to refrain from enforcing the 520 “administrative protocols” (administrative fines) that it has brought or threatened against the international media since January 2021. These interim measures, if granted, would be in place until the court can rule on the lawfulness of the fines, which run to millions of US dollars and have been brought under Russia’s foreign agent law.
In late 2017, eight of RFE/RL’s news outlets were designated “foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice under the country’s controversial foreign agent law. RFE/RL and its news services are the only international media outlets with a physical presence in the Russian Federation to have been designated “foreign agents.”
Since October 30, 2020, Russia’s media and telecommunications agency, Roskomnadzor, has ordered foreign media organizations designated as “foreign agents” to label every news article, social media post, and piece of audio-visual content with a prominent written warning (or 15-second oral statement) that the media content has been created by a foreign media outlet “performing the functions of a foreign agent.” While RFE/RL has complied with all of its legal obligations under the foreign agents law, it has declined to implement this new labelling requirement.
Roskomnadzor’s response has been to issue 390 administrative cases against RFE/RL LLC and its director Mr. Shary in the Russian courts over a period of three months, with fines totaling over RUB 107.25 million (approximately US $1,430,000). Roskomnadzor is due this week to begin filing an additional 130 cases against RFE/RL LLC and Mr. Shary, with additional fines estimated at RUB 71.5 million (nearly US $1 million). If the fines proceed at the present rate, they are likely to reach RUB 2.5 billion (approximately US $33 million) by the end of the year.
If these fines are not paid, the Russian authorities have the power to place RFE/RL into insolvency and/or to block access to its media sites. Mr. Shary faces the prospect of a prison sentence of up to two years and personal bankruptcy. In a 6 April 2021 statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his concern “over Russia’s efforts to close Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and silence this valued source of independent reporting”.
RFE/RL is represented in the European Court of Human Rights by Can Yeginsu, instructed by Covington & Burling LLP’s New York and D.C. offices. In February, the Prague headquarters of RFE/RL intimated a claim under 1994 bilateral investment treaty between the Czech Republic and Russia.
The ECtHR application has generated extensive press coverage. See: (i) RFE/RL’s press release of 16 April 2021; (ii) Reuter’s story of 16 April 2021; (iii) DW’s story of 16 April 2021; (iv) Al Jazeera’s story of 16 April 2021; (v) the Jerusalem Post’s story of 16 April 2021; and (vi) the Global Arbitration Review’s story of 16 April 2021.