Human rights and media-freedom watchdogs are calling on Russia to stop prosecuting media lawyers and allow reporters to receive proper legal assistance as the authorities are "stepping up their harassment" of journalists via the controversial "foreign agents" law.
Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued the pleas this week after one of the lawyers defending Ivan Safronov, a jailed investigative reporter charged with treason, fled Russia late last month.
Yevgeny Smirnov fled to Georgia after the Leningrad regional bar association initiated disciplinary proceedings against him at the behest of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Smirnov, who is accused of failing to be present for six investigative procedures without a valid reason, is the second lawyer defending Safronov to flee Russia in the past three months.
Ivan Pavlov also left to Georgia in September after the authorities opened a case against him earlier this year for allegedly disclosing classified information about the Safronov investigation -- an allegation he denies.
Amnesty International on December 1 expressed deep concern about the "unprecedented pressure" placed by the authorities on Pavlov and Smirnov, and about "the continuing unlawful pressure" exerted on Safronov and the conditions of his pretrial detention.
"The actions of the Russian authorities violate the rights to fair trial, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, as well as are entirely inconsistent with the obligations to protect human rights defenders," the London-based human rights group said in a statement .
Safronov was arrested and charged with high treason in July 2020. He is accused of passing secret information to the Czech Republic, a university in Switzerland, and Germany's intelligence service.
A former adviser to the head of Russian space agency Roskosmos and a onetime journalist, he has rejected the accusations against him and many of his supporters have held pickets demanding his release.
A wanted notice has been issued for Pavlov, who headed the St. Petersburg-based legal-defense organization Komanda 29, and he was placed on the "foreign agents" list in early November along with four former colleagues.
The coalition of lawyers and journalists was dissolved in July over its alleged links to a Czech nongovernmental organization branded by the Russian authorities as "undesirable."
"These proceedings and this use of the 'foreign agents' label against media lawyers is designed solely to put additional pressure on the journalists they defend, to isolate these journalists, and to deter those who could assist them," Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement on December 3.
Cavelier urged the Leningrad regional bar association and the Russian Justice Ministry "not to yield to the FSB's pressure and to drop all the baseless proceedings against lawyers who defend journalists, so that they can practice their profession in the manner prescribed by the law."
The Russian authorities a year ago began to place media outlets and journalists on the "foreign agents" list, and are now targeting lawyers, the Paris-based group said, noting that the head of the Mass Media Defense Center, a source of expertise and legal assistance for media in difficulty, became the first lawyer to be placed on the register in October.
When it was first promulgated in 2012, the "foreign agents" law originally targeted organizations that receive foreign funding, and which the government deems to be engaged in political activity. It has since been amended repeatedly and increasingly used to target media outlets and individual journalists and bloggers.
The law requires targeted organizations to be registered, to identify themselves as "foreign agents," and to submit to audits.
The designation also restricts other media from citing a "foreign agent" organization without including a disclaimer.
According to RSF, the wording of the legislation "has become so vague that it is now easy for the authorities to use it against anyone they want to silence."
The law is used "to intimidate not only journalists and sources but also the readers and advertisers of a media outlet placed on the list, with the aim of making the outlet gradually disappear," the group said.
On December 3, Russia's Justice Ministry labeled four current and former RFE/RL journalists as "foreign agents," adding their names to a list of about 100 media entities and journalists.
The regime of President Vladimir Putin "is escalating its campaign against journalists who dare to report the facts inside Russia's own borders," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said.