Russian lawmakers raced Friday to draft measures requiring U.S. media outlets and possibly social media networks to register as foreign agents, saying they could be adopted as early as next week. The measures, which are being prepared ahead of Russia's presidential election in March, would be a huge blow to already tattered U.S.-Russia ties.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of Russia's parliament, the State Duma, charged deputies with updating existing legislation after state-controlled Russia Today (RT) television was ordered by Washington to register as a "foreign agent" by Monday.
Volodin told Russian reporters the new measures, which would affect dozens of U.S. news organizations operating in Russia including CNN and Voice of America, could be adopted at first reading on Wednesday and at a third and final reading next Friday.
Washington has been fighting what it calls a barrage of "fake news" from Russian media, including RT and the Sputnik news agency, which it says is aimed at interfering in US domestic politics. "What the US authorities are doing today is an infringement on fundamental civil rights, on freedom of speech," Volodin said.
"The United States speaks beautifully about the freedom of speech when it comes to other countries but acts dogmatically itself."
His deputy Pyotr Tolstoy called for the mobilization of all of the country's political forces, saying it was "an emergency situation."
Lawmakers said the measures targeting U.S. media would be "reciprocal" and would set the same limitations that U.S. authorities were seeking to impose on Russian media.
A senior lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party, Sergei Neverov, told reporters that the new measures could include social networks.
Russian telecoms watchdog Roskomnadzor, for its part, proposed blocking the websites of foreign media groups and nongovernmental organizations, without any need of a court order. Roskomnadzor has repeatedly threatened to block Facebook and Twitter if they do not comply with a government demand to store the personal data of Russian nationals on Russia-based servers.
In 2012, Moscow adopted a law which requires NGOs that receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents", a move critics said was part of a clampdown on civil society. Lawmakers said the existing law would be amended to include media groups.
The head of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, said the broadcaster was "suddenly" told by Washington it had until Monday to register as a "foreign agent" in the United States or face having its accounts frozen, among other measures. She said RT would challenge the demand by the U.S. Department of Justice in court.
Washington, which considers RT a propaganda arm for the Kremlin, in September told it to register its American operation under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is aimed at lobbyists and lawyers representing foreign political interests.
The same month Simonyan complained to President Vladimir Putin that RT and Sputnik had come under pressure in the United States.
"As soon as we see concrete steps limiting the activities of our media, there will be a retaliatory response," Putin said at the time.
RT has become a focus of the US investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
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