Marked by the State: Russia Ramps Up ‘Foreign Agent’ Law Ahead of Election

Dozens of Russian independent media have been labeled “foreign agents” in the run-up to parliamentary elections, which are now only three weeks away.As of August 31, the Ministry of Justice website lists 43 media outlets and journalists and 76 civil society groups as “foreign agents.” Another 46 groups have been given the label of “undesirable organization.”Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an annual nationwide televised phone-in show in Moscow, June 30, 2021.The list includes large news outlets and prominent Russian journalists who have investigated President Vladimir Putin and his allies. The U.S. Congress-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are among those named.Russian journalists who spoke with VOA saw the labeling as an attempt by the Kremlin to destroy independent media and prevent any protests about September’s parliamentary elections or the 2024 presidential vote.The designation is also affecting an election-monitoring group and candidates for the opposition Yabloko party, who were ordered to indicate their affiliation with “foreign agents” on campaign materials.The legislation was introduced in 2012. It was amended in response to the U.S. ordering Moscow-funded news groups to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 2017.Since then, Russia has applied the label broadly to independent media outlets and critics and has told others they must indicate their connections to named agents.The Justice Ministry did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.The foreign agent label is “another mechanism” to fight dissent, Yabloko party candidate Alexei Krapukhin told VOA.Krapukhin’s election campaign has called for an end to repression and for protests over the resetting of presidential terms that would allow Putin to run for a fifth term.Russia’s New Constitution to Further Silence DebateAmendments, proposed new laws could block reporting on anything that contradicts Kremlin narrative, experts say But when Krapukhin sent a campaign video to Moscow Media, which oversees TV channels and radio stations, he was told to either remove the mention of Yabloko or indicate the party’s affiliation with registered agents.Russia’s state-run Central Election Commission said that because Yabloko nominated two candidates affiliated with “foreign agents,” the party must indicate the relationship in at least 15% of all campaign advertisements, including those on TV and voting ballots.Krapukhin successfully challenged the order. But, he told VOA, “the Kremlin is creating an information cocoon around the upcoming election.””Independent media are the lens for people to look at the state. If there are no independent journalists, there is no understanding of the country’s problems,” Krapukhin said.Tainted by labelRequirements under the foreign agent law are cumbersome and can lead to penalties and turn away potential business, some journalists said.When the Justice Ministry labeled Russia’s last independent TV channel, Dozhd, a foreign agent in August, the channel’s editorial board called the decision “insidious.” The ministry said in a statement that Dozhd received more than 130,000 euros ($153,000) from the European Commission for EU-Russia coverage and that it distributes material from foreign mass media, including VOA. In June, the station was removed from the Kremlin press pool after covering rallies for jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and it is one of the few remaining channels providing independent coverage of protests. Russian Opposition Leader Faces New Charge, More JailRussia’s Investigative Committee said Alexei Navalny’s non-profit group encouraged Russians to break the lawNow the station must indicate that every report on TV, the internet or its social media platforms was produced by a “foreign agent.” ”We are required to tag everything, even Instagram stories,” Dozhd Editor-in-Chief Tikhon Dzyadko said. But with a large number of posts, “there is always the possibility that we will simply skip this marking (if) someone is tired or forgets.”If that happened, Dzyadko said, the penalty would be huge, including up to two years in prison if fines for noncompliance are not paid.RFE/RL has filled a case with the European Court of Human Rights after being fined millions of dollars since January under the law. A more serious consequence, Dzyadko said, is that “business may not want to deal with us. Big money is known to love silence. And being included in the list of foreign agents means that you are an enemy of the state; you are potentially dangerous.”Dzyadko cited the case of independent news website Meduza, which lost advertising after being labeled a foreign agent earlier this year.Russia Using Foreign Agent Law to Attack Journalism, Media SayExorbitant fines, repressive accounting of all personal spending, and labels that sow distrust are part of Russia’s ‘fight against the spread of ideas,’ say those affected by legislation’People will not be silent’Since a constitutional referendum last year cleared Putin to run for a fifth term, 25 journalists and seven media outlets have been labeled foreign agents by Russia.At first the action appeared linked to the parliamentary elections, but now it seems the 2024 presidential election is the focus, said Dozhd journalist Ekaterina Kotrikadze.”The goal is to drown out liberal ideas and free speech before the elections in 2024, as the Kremlin is eager to avoid repeating the path of Belarus,” Kotrikadze said. “They are doing everything so that there are no large protests, large rallies — so that they do not have to use that much force as (Belarus President Alexander) Lukashenko.” But, she said, the Kremlin’s plan will not work. ”Russia is such a huge country, and there are many honest free journalists and political figures. People will not be silent.”In some cases, individual journalists as well as their newsrooms are listed as foreign agents.When Russia designated Vazhnye Istorii (Important Stories) — an outlet known for investigating Putin and his allies — as a foreign agent, it listed six of the news group’s journalists.Those people must now register as legal entities, submit reports to authorities and add a ‘foreign agent’ label to all their public social media posts, including personal ones.”I am not a foreign agent. This law is a shame, and it’s illegal,” Dmitry Velikovsky, a Vazhnye Istorii journalist, told VOA. “I am not a media outlet, I am a (Russian) citizen who writes articles in the media and writes what he wants on Facebook.”Velikovsky believes he and his colleagues were included in retaliation for reporting on Putin’s family and allies.”All those personally listed were investigative reporters who covered the Panama Papers leaks, where Putin’s childhood friend Sergei Roldugin appears,” Velikovsky said, adding that Vazhnye Istorii also investigated the transfer of billions of dollars from Russian state banks and businessmen to the accounts of people close to Putin and large Russian companies. His colleague Irina Dolinina, who is also on the list, told VOA the label “overcomplicates life and puts personal safety at great risk.””On every post on any social media and even in public chats, I have to put this huge humiliating mark, and now I have to open a legal entity to report my personal spending to authorities,” she said. “All ‘foreign agents’ are a couple of steps away from being in prison.”Survival modeThe situation in Russia has deteriorated significantly compared with the environment during the parliamentary elections five years ago, said Vasily Vaisenberg, editor in chief of news agency Zakon.Член ЦИК Игорь Борисов предложил специально маркировать наблюдателей, которые связаны с организациями-инагентами. “Вполне допустимо, что мы не будем запрещать ОП назначать таких наблюдателей, но соответствующим образом их маркировать”— ИА Закон (@zakon_agency) August 12, 2021″In 2016, parts of the society had certain hopes,” Vaisenberg said. “There is no hope now.”The journalist also works with the election monitoring group Golos (Voice), which in August was listed as an “unregistered foreign agent.”Vaisenberg said it was unclear what restrictions authorities might place on independent observers.A few days before Golos was added to the list, Central Election Commission of Russia member Igor Borisov had proposed identifying observers associated with “foreign agent organizations.”Borisov was cited in articles saying the observers would not necessarily be banned, but “labeled accordingly.”Alexei Kurtov, president of the Russian Association of Political Consultants, told VOA that the current climate “forces all the media to be more careful, more restrained.””Many news outlets seem to have to stand on tiptoe, not knowing what direction the wind blows,” Kurtov said. He added that Russians who want uncensored information would “have to read between the lines. Again.”But in some cases, media outlets added to the Justice Ministry list have closed down.Investigative outlet The Project was shuttered after the company and some staff were added to the register in July.Maria Zheleznova, a former Project journalist who is still listed as an individual “foreign agent,” said on Facebook that the label is equivalent to “an instant ban on activities threatened by immediate prosecution for the creator.” Mikhail Rubin, former deputy editor in chief for The Project, told VOA that the previous tactic of self-censoring on some issues, such as critical coverage of Putin, is no longer enough.”A huge number of media outlets in Russia have chosen this tactic of survival. They do not touch Putin, they don’t conduct their own investigations, they don’t write about Navalny, but otherwise they are trying to conduct some kind of transparent journalism,” Rubin said. “No, guys, it doesn’t work anymore.”Rubin believes Russia will soon demand “absolute demonstrative loyalty” from all media groups.Authorities are already demanding complete loyalty, even from newspapers that are popular among the elite only, Rubin said, adding, “This is the call to the Russian elite that they should demonstrate absolute loyalty to Kremlin.”This story originated in VOA’s Russian service. Ksenia Turkova, Rafael Saakov contributed to this report.

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Biden Forcefully Defends Ending Two-Decade US War in Afghanistan

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday forcefully defended his decision to end the country’s two-decade war in Afghanistan that leaves Taliban insurgents in power, just as they were in 2001. “We no longer need to fight a war that should have ended long ago,” Biden said in a half-hour address from the White House. “I refuse to open another decade of war in Afghanistan.” He cited the high cost of the conflict to the United States — 2,461 service members killed, another 20,744 injured and $300 million a day in expenditures. But he said it is time to focus on new threats from around the world, whether from other terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, economic threats from China, or cyberattacks from inside Russia. WATCH: War in Afghanistan Is Now OverSorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 6 MB480p | 9 MB540p | 9 MB720p | 17 MB1080p | 41 MBOriginal | 64 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioThe Afghan conflict was initiated in late 2001 by former President George W. Bush, who invaded Afghanistan to overrun training grounds for al-Qaida terrorists who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people. Biden said that after he took office in January, he faced the decision whether to honor the pact agreed to by former President Donald Trump to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by last May, a deadline Biden ultimately extended by five months. “The choice was leaving or escalating this war,” Biden said. But he said Afghanistan can be monitored from outside its borders to “make sure it can never again be used” as a base for an attack on the U.S. WATCH: Afghan Security Forces ‘Did Not Hold on as Long as Anyone Expected’Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 4 MB480p | 6 MB540p | 6 MB720p | 11 MB1080p | 26 MBOriginal | 42 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioTwo Republican critics of Biden attacked his performance in ending the Afghan conflict. “President Biden’s unseemly victory lap was detached from reality,” Senator Ben Sasse said. “His callous indifference to the Americans he abandoned behind enemy lines is shameful.” Senator Kevin Cramer declared, “President Biden’s withdrawal was a complete failure. His actions are unfitting for the office he holds and are embarrassing our country on the world stage.” Biden said he takes responsibility for the chaotic, deadly end to the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, in which 13 service members were killed last week in a suicide bomb attack by an ISIS-Khorasan attacker. But Biden vowed again, “To those who wish America harm, we will hunt you down … and make you pay.” WATCH: ‘I was not extending a forever exit’Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 5 MB480p | 8 MB540p | 8 MB720p | 14 MB1080p | 35 MBOriginal | 57 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioThe U.S. says it has already killed an insurgent who planned the bombing. Biden acknowledged that 100 to 200 Americans who wanted to be evacuated from Kabul remain in Afghanistan, but he said 90% of Americans who wanted to leave had been evacuated on military flights over the last 17 days — about 5,500 people in all. He said the U.S. and other countries around the world would insist that the Taliban live up to its promise to allow the remaining Americans to leave if they want, along with Afghans who supported the U.S. war effort. “We’re far from done” in helping others be evacuated from Afghanistan, he said. For weeks, Biden and other members of his administration discussed the possibility of staying longer than his self-imposed August 31 deadline, balancing the challenges and benefits of a massive operation to evacuate more U.S. citizens and Afghan civilians against credible security threats. “It was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and of all of our commanders on the ground to end our airlift mission as planned,” Biden said Monday and reiterated in his White House address. “Their view was that ending our military mission was the best way to protect the lives of our troops and secure the prospects of civilian departures for those who want to leave Afghanistan in the weeks and months ahead.” 
 

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At Least 26 Dead After Bus Plunges Over Cliff in Peru

Peruvian officials say a bus carrying 63 passengers went off a cliff along a main highway in the Andes mountains, plunging into an abyss and killing at least 29 people in the early hours of Tuesday, authorities said. Police told Peruvian media the incident happened near the town of Matucana, along a narrow stretch of Peru’s Central Highway, a corridor that connects the capital, Lima, to much of the central Andes. Senior police officials told Peruvian television the bus collided with a rock and went over the cliff. Witnesses at the scene said the fall was at least 100 meters. Police officials say they believe the bus was traveling at a reckless rate of speed, but the accident remains under investigation. The accident is the second involving a bus plunging from a road in Peru in a matter of days. On Friday, a bus carrying miners in a different part of the Andes also drove off a cliff, killing 16. The two incidents are unrelated, although bus plunges are not uncommon in Peru, especially in the Andes. The mountain range traverses the length of the country, and its highways are often dangerous, overlooking tall cliffs. Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters.  
 

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Kenya Company Wants Buses, Utility Vehicles to Go Green by 2030

The United Nations Environment Program on Monday marked the official end of toxic leaded gasoline use in vehicles worldwide. A company in Nairobi, where the UNEP is headquartered, is working on the next step — converting all buses and utility vehicles to electric power by 2030.Lucy Mugala goes about checking on the energy levels of battery modules lined neatly on a workshop table. Mugala is an engineer at Opibus, a privately owned four-year-old Nairobi company that converts cars and public transport vehicles to run on electricity.Today, Mugala and fellow engineer Esther Wairimu are fine-tuning plans to outfit a public transport bus with lithium batteries. Mugala said converting this bus reduces the effects of greenhouse emissions responsible for global warming.“A lot has been done currently in terms of mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases in Kenya, but very little is being done in the electrical vehicle sector, and that is the gap we are trying to fill at Opibus. We are looking at maximizing impact by targeting the largest sector, which is the public transport sector, and with this, we will be able to step by step be able to achieve a low carbon economy in Kenya and in Africa at large,” said Mugala.Douglas Agwata has been in the public transport industry for 15 years. On average, Agwata spends around $80 on fuel daily, a cost he’d like to see come down.However, Agwata said that drivers like him may find it challenging to adapt to electric vehicles.He said that converting the engines from gasoline to electric is quite costly and that one may also find that there is a scarcity of charging stations, and this may prove to be quite challenging.Joshua Anampiu is the strategy and planning manager at the National Environment Trust Fund, or NETFUND, a state corporation that raises funds for sustainable environmental management in Kenya.Anampiu said shifting toward clean energy requires investment from the government, but he argues that the investment will be worth it.“No matter how costly it looks right now, we know in the long run it will be more effective towards preserving our environment, which is an existential threat right now if we do not take care of our environment. So, yes, there are areas we need to put up infrastructure. We need to change the entire mechanisms of the infrastructure, and this obviously is costly. And so, going forward, maybe invest now, put in a bit more cash, and then we’ll reap the benefits in the future,” he said.The global end of leaded gasoline use has been lauded as a milestone by the United Nations Environment Program.Jane Akumu is a program manager at UNEP. Akumu adds that a lot more needs to be done to ensure efficacy in abolishing the use of leaded gasoline.“You know, we need a lot of awareness for people to be able to know why it’s important to have cleaner fuels or cleaner vehicles. Policymakers need to also come in, and especially … standards bodies. It’s important for them to set regulations in place because the industry is pushed by regulation. What we’ve noticed is that in some of the countries where there’s no regulation, poor fuel quality, poor vehicle qualities, are imported,” said Akumu.For Mugala and other clean energy champions, the challenge will be to reduce the costs of going electric and encourage consumers to go green. 

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Former Afghan Mayor Wants to Engage With Taliban

Until a couple of months ago, Zarifa Ghafari, 29, was the young, female reformist mayor of a conservative town outside Kabul, Afghanistan, an emblem of the gains Afghan women have made since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban.Today, Ghafari lives in exile in Germany, having left Kabul on a whirlwind evacuation flight less than two weeks after the Taliban swept back to power on August 15.But she said she has not left Afghanistan for good and remains just as determined as ever to advocate for Afghan women’s rights by creating a solidarity movement.“I hope to raise the unspoken voice of Afghan women throughout the world,” Ghafari said in an interview with VOA’s Afghanistan service.For better or for worse, she said, the Taliban are a “reality on the ground,” and she wants to engage with them.“The Taliban can never govern without the participation of women, who comprise more than half of the population,” she said. “So, I hope we can persuade them to accept the reality on the ground and accept women at their side. If they don’t do this, I can assure you they won’t be able to establish the kind of government they have in mind.”In 2018, Ghafari became the youngest mayor in Afghanistan when then-President Ashraf Ghani put her in charge of Maidan Shahr, a conservative town 46 kilometers southeast of Kabul. Opposition to her appointment was swift and severe.“When she showed up to start work, a male mob appeared, and she was forced to flee,” according to a State Department biography of Ghafari.“Despite death threats, Ms. Ghafari came back, defying her conservative critics and their narrative that a woman is unfit to lead,” the biography said.Her defiance of the Taliban won her international recognition.Zarifa Ghafari of Afghanistan speaks during the annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards ceremony at the State Department in Washington on March 4, 2020.In 2019, the BBC put her on its list of 100 inspiring and influential women from around the world. And in 2020, she was a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award.In June, with the Taliban closing in on her hometown, Ghafari was appointed as a senior official in the Ministry of Defense. While she survived several attempts on her life, her father was not so lucky. A colonel in the Afghan army, he was fatally shot outside his house in Kabul last year.In the interview with VOA’s Afghan service, Ghafari said she had no choice but to leave the country because she didn’t want her seven family members to meet her father’s fate at the hands of the Taliban.Before boarding her flight at the Kabul airport last week, she says she picked up some dirt — a piece of her country — and tied it up in her headscarf.“I’ve brought it with me, and I hope I can return it to my country very soon,” she said. “Leaving (Afghanistan) doesn’t mean I’ve left forever. I’m optimistic that I’ll return to my country very soon. “ 

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Poland Could Declare State of Emergency at Belarus Border

The Polish government has asked President Andrzej Duda to declare a state of emergency along the Poland-Belarus border. Poland accuses Belarus of using migrants as political pawns by pushing them into the European Union in retaliation over EU sanctions. According to a recent BBC report, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused Poland of starting a “border conflict” and violating his country’s territory. The state of emergency would create a three-kilometer-wide zone around the border that would prohibit outsiders from entering. FILE – Polish President Andrzej Duda speaks in Gdansk-Westerplatte, Sept. 1, 2020.”Please expect Poland’s security to be strengthened in the nearest time through acts of law, and also through subsequent actions on Poland’s border,” Duda said. The country’s parliament would need to approve the emergency declaration, and Duda said he thinks it would. About 30 migrants, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, have been in limbo at the border for weeks. So far, Poland’s response has been to deploy troops to the border and install a barbed wire fence. Last week, it said it had provided tents, blankets and power generators to the migrants, who remain on Belarusian territory. Also last week, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, called for Poland to provide medical and legal support to the migrants. Some refugee rights groups say several migrants are sick. One group reportedly tried to cut a hole in the barbed wire fence. About 3,000 migrants have attempted to enter Poland from Belarus this month, The Associated Press reported. Poland is not alone in accusing Belarus of using migrants as political pawns. Other Baltic states have said Minsk is pushing migrants toward them in response to the EU sanctions following a crackdown against those protesting the disputed reelection of President Lukashenko in August 2020. Last week, the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, said it was monitoring the situation. “We firmly reject attempts to instrumentalize people for political purposes,” spokesman Christian Wigand said in Brussels. “We cannot accept any attempts by third countries to incite or acquiesce in illegal migration” to the EU.  Some information in this report comes from the Associated Press and Reuters. 
 

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