The IPI global network today condemns the designation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), an independent media corporation funded by the U.S. Congress, as an “undesirable organization” in Russia. The decision is part of a series of Russian attacks on independent media weaponizing local laws on “undesirable organizations”.

According to state-controlled news agency Interfax, RFE/RL was included on the Ministry of Justice’s list of “undesirable” groups on February 20, following an earlier decision by the office of Russia’s Prosecutor-General on February 2. Russian authorities have not publicly commented on or provided any justification for the designation.

RFE/RL representatives said that the decision created new dangers for the editor of its Tatar-Bashkir service, Alsu Kurmasheva, a dual Russian-American citizen who was imprisoned in Russia in October. Kurmasheva remains in pre-trial detention on various charges, which now also include alleged dissemination of “fake news” on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The new restrictions placed on RFE/RL will also have serious consequences for the outlet’s day-to-day work, as “undesirable” status implies a de facto ban on its activities in Russia. While reading and watching the outlet’s production remains legal, nearly all other interactions no longer are. For readers, sharing or liking content and social media posts by RFE/RL on social media can lead to sanctions.

Russian courts have already fined citizens for participating in the activities of an “undesirable organization”. Financial penalties can amount to up to 50 thousand rubles per case, according to Russian legislation. Donating money of any amount to an “undesirable” organization is an even more serious violation, punished by up to five years in prison.

Risks for journalists working for RFE/RLare even greater, as “participating” or “organizing the activities” of an “undesirable organization” carry sentences of up to six years in prison.

This will affect all those who worked for RFE/RL across Russia, including at the outlet’s central Russian service, Russian-language TV channel Current Time, as well as regional services spanning Siberia, the Volga region, northwestern Russia and the northern Caucasus. The 21 remaining RFE/RL language services that do not necessarily target Russian audiences are now also banned in Russia.

“By designating RFE/RL as an ‘undesirable’ organization, Russian authorities have once again demonstrated their intolerance for independent journalism,” said IPI Executive Director Frane Maroević. “Journalists have long been intimidated, harassed and ultimately forced out of Russia for their independent journalism and reporting on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. RFE/RL editor Alsu Kurmasheva must be released immediately and allowed to return to the United States as the charges against her are completely fabricated.”

He added: “This decision comes less than a week after the killing of imprisoned Russian opposition leader and activist Alexey Navalny. It shows what the authorities are ready to do to anyone who expresses dissent or criticism of their actions. The cruelty of this regime led by Vladimir Putin has no bounds.”

As highlighted by media lawyer Sergey Markov, the decision on RFE/RL seems to have been made in violation of the country’s laws on “undesirable organizations”, as current regulations only allow international and non-governmental organizations to be designated as such. A bill currently debated in the Russian parliament would extend this possibility to groups funded by foreign governments, however it has not yet been voted on or signed into law.

RFE/RL has sustained serious legal harassment by Russian authorities in the past decade, with fines against the outlet now totalling around one billion rubles. RFE/RL has systematically refused to pay these on the basis that they are politically motivated. The media corporation was designated as a “foreign agent” in Russia in 2020, and several of its leading journalists also received the designation in the following years.

Over the past year, Russia has weaponized its law on “undesirable organizations” against an ever-longer list of independent media outlets, virtually all of which have been operating from exile since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This now includes leading online publications, such as Meduza, TV Rain and Novaya Gazeta Europe. Prior to 2023, the law was used mainly against non-governmental organizations headquartered in the United States, as well as a handful of independent investigative outlets, such as Proekt or Bellingcat.