Letters   |   Russia

NGO bill is 'deeply troubling'

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by a bill before you that seeks to dramatically expand state control over nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including those dedicated to promoting press freedom and supporting independent media. The bill emerges at a politically sensitive time, as the Kremlin prepares for the 2007 parliamentary election and the 2008 presidential election. The proposed restrictions appear to attack political pluralism and public dissent in Russia.

Deputies in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, proposed the "Amendments to Several Laws of the Russian Federation," in November. The bill amends three existing laws: the Law on Closed Administrative Territorial Entities; the Law on Public Associations; and the Law on Non-Commercial Organizations. The State Duma approved the bill in three readings, on November 23, December 21, and December 23. The upper house, the Federation Council, approved the bill on December 27, and it now awaits your signature to become law.

The bill's sponsors say it would enable authorities to clamp down on foreign-funded, politically active NGOs. Journalists and NGO leaders say it would greatly expand government authority to harass and close organizations that criticize official policies or promote democracy and press freedom.

Among several disturbing provisions is a requirement that the Justice Ministry's Federal Registration Service certify that NGOs are not engaged in foreign-funded activities that are counter to the "political independence of the Russian Federation" or in activities that are not specifically authorized in their charters. Prohibited activities are not defined in the bill, providing Federal Registration Service officials broad leeway to interpret the provision in an arbitrary, selective, and politicized manner. The Federal Registration Service--which regulates political, religious, media, and other organizations--has a record of targeting government critics.

The bill also authorizes Federal Registration Service officials to initiate a judicial process to close foreign NGOs if they threaten "Russia's sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, national unity, cultural heritage and national interests" or if they violate the Constitution or other unspecified laws, The Moscow Times reported. The bill allows these officials to prohibit foreign NGOs from engaging in activities or providing financial support deemed a threat to national security. The bill does not define threats to national security.
NGOs are concerned that the vague wording in the bill grants excessive authority to the Federal Registration Service to enforce the provisions in a selective way against organizations seen as disloyal to the Kremlin. Recent campaigns of harassment against the Open Russia Foundation--which supports media training programs--and the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society--which published a newspaper about human rights abuses in the North Caucasus--have already sent a strong message that the government will aggressively suppress dissent.

If enacted, the bill could be used to restrict the work of a broad array of Russian NGOs working to assist the country's fledging independent media amid growing state restrictions on the media. Press freedom groups, media training organizations, media policy institutes, and media advocacy organizations working in Moscow and in the regions could face harassment or closure. Many asked CPJ not to be named out of fear that they could face reprisal from authorities.

As a press freedom organization, we are deeply troubled that the bill will be used to interfere in news reporting in Russia, where excessive government secrecy has forced journalists to increasingly rely on NGOs for information about government policies and public opinion. One high-ranking official expressed the administration's eagerness to block critical information. Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko stated on December 1 that he supported the bill because "the foreign and Russian mass media constantly cite opinions and judgments of well-financed Russian branches of foreign NGOs, presenting them as a reflection of our public opinion. Then false conclusions are drawn about a gap between the public opinion and Russian government when it comes to foreign affairs. I am convinced that this situation requires an urgent correction."

Both international officials and Russian human rights activists have questioned the bill's compatibility with international legal standards. An analysis of the bill conducted by Yury Dzhibladze, president of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, concluded that the restrictions on freedom of assembly and freedom of association violate Articles 13, 30 and 55 of the Russian Constitution, as well as Article 20 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 22 of the U.N. International Convention on Political and Civil Rights, The Moscow Times reported. On December 6, Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis characterized several draft provisions as "too restrictive," but many of those provisions have been left intact, according to local press reports.

By proposing and approving this legislation, your supporters in the parliament are seeking to move Russia away from international legal norms for regulating the non-profit sector. This measure emulates the restrictive and isolationist model implemented by repressive Central Asian dictatorships such as Uzbekistan. Authorities in Uzbekistan have used registration requirements and other legal and bureaucratic technicalities during the past two years to close the local offices of international NGOs such as the Open Society Institute, Internews, and IREX.

This restrictive legal initiative has also been made just as Russia prepares to assume the chairmanship of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in 2006, raising the prospect that Russia will take on greater international leadership as it simultaneously restricts contact with the international community.

The vaguely worded legal restrictions would empower politicized bureaucrats to interfere in the work of NGOs and derail democracy by denying citizens access to information about political and economic developments. A functioning democracy depends on the ability of individual institutions to balance and monitor each other. The current legislation gives extraordinary power to the Federal Registration Service to undermine the critical role of NGOs, including those assisting journalists and supporting the independent media.

We urge you to not sign this deeply flawed bill and to ensure that any similar legislation does not become law. NGOs provide a critical source of support to the country's independent media, and they promote the free expression necessary in a democratic society.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.

Sincerely,

Ann Cooper
Executive Director

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