Russia’s Parliament approved legislation on Wednesday that could require foreign media organizations operating in Russia to label news they produce as the work of a “foreign agent,” the latest step in the unraveling of relations since the United States accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The measure will become law if passed by the Russian Senate and signed by President Vladimir V. Putin. Over the weekend, however, Mr. Putin expressed some doubts, saying the rule may go too far.
The proposed new regulation is evidently intended as retaliation for reporting requirements imposed by the Department of Justice on the American affiliate of RT, the Russian state-run TV news outlet that American intelligence agencies say is a propaganda tool of the Kremlin.
Last week, acting in accordance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law that was aimed at Nazi propaganda organs, the Justice Department required RT to identify itself as a “foreign agent.” Under that law, foreign agents are required to file reports on the sources of their funding and on all activities intended to influence a lawmaker or other government representative. It is not clear what that would mean for RT’s reporters.
The law is typically applied today to lobbyists representing foreign governments or state-owned companies, though some foreign state-run news outlets have been required to register. Pressure to take action against RT mounted after American intelligence agencies accused it of playing a role in what they say was a Kremlin-directed campaign to discredit Hillary Clinton and elect President Trump in 2016.
The proposed Russian law appears far broader in its potential application, covering all foreign media organizations, not only state-run outlets. That has news organizations scrambling to see how it would affect their operations, and Russian rights groups fearful of another crackdown on freedom of speech.
Russian officials, who fiercely condemned the registration requirement for RT, said they took the retaliatory measure reluctantly. “We didn’t want to pass this law,” said Pyotr Tolstoy, the deputy speaker of Parliament. “This is a law that might not have existed. In Russia, we never took measures limiting freedom of speech in any of its forms.”
Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s press secretary, said of the rule that “any encroachment on the freedom of Russian media abroad is not and won’t be left without a strong condemnation.”
Though presented as reply to the United States’ demand that RT register, the rule could affect all foreign news media, not just American organizations.
“Numerous independent media in the country get foreign funding,” Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview. “The foreign funding could become a pretext to crack down on them. It is just shockingly disproportionate and broad. The way it is written now, it appears it could be used for many different purposes.”
As written now, the Russian law would allow the Ministry of Justice to designate as a foreign agent any news media organization based outside of Russia or receiving non-Russian funding, and would apply the same rules to designated news media as to nongovernmental groups under a 2012 Russian law.
Under that measure, non-Russian nongovernmental organizations were required to file quarterly reports on their funding and activities to the Justice Ministry, open their books to an outside auditor and identify themselves as foreign agents on any published materials. Many organizations ceased operating rather than comply with the requirements.
It remains unclear what might be asked of news outlets based outside Russia and publishing online, or how the Russian government might seek to enforce the law.
“This legislation strikes a serious blow to what was already a fairly desperate situation for press freedom,” Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, said in a statement. He said the rule would be likely to curtail the Russian-language services of the BBC, Deutsche Welle and the Washington-funded outlets Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
“The Kremlin has been tirelessly building a media echo chamber that shuts out critical voices,” Mr. Krivosheev said, “both inside Russia and from abroad.”