A Russian law that could require international media outlets to register as "foreign agents" in response to US pressure on the Kremlin-backed RT television is an attack on free speech, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
The legislation, which won unanimous backing from Russia's lower house this week and is set to be voted on in the Senate, would allow Moscow to target foreign media outlets in a similar way it has punished NGOs that receive international funding.
Many NGOs have closed in response to the intense scrutiny.
Under the new legislation, US and other foreign media would have to present themselves as such on all paperwork and submit to intensive scrutiny of staffing and financing.
"The US government's misguided decision to request for RT to register under (the Foreign Agents Registration Act) gave the Kremlin a platform to retaliate, and they have done so with a full throttle attack on media freedom," said Hugh Williamson, the director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.
"But sadly, the bill will not simply hurt foreign media, but worse, unjustifiably limit Russian citizens' right to access information and ideas," he said.
"This legislation is tailor-made to be selectively and politically enforced, and to silence voices they do not want Russian people to hear."
Russia's justice ministry said Thursday that it had already contacted the US-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to inform them they might have to start labelling themselves as "foreign agents".
Once the Senate approves the legislation, expected this month, the "foreign agent" amendments to an existing media law would enter into force immediately on being signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During a visit to the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Friday, the US ambassador to Moscow, Jon Huntsman, said the Russian law was "not reciprocal at all" and went further than measures imposed by Washington.
"We're going to follow the work that is going on in the Duma (parliament) and the legislation that is being drafted very, very carefully. Because we're concerned about it," he said.
RT television, which is funded by the Kremlin to give a Russian point of view on international affairs, confirmed Monday that it had registered as a foreign agent in the United States, meeting a deadline from the US Department of Justice.
Washington considers RT a propaganda arm of the Kremlin and told it to register its American operation under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is aimed at lobbyists and lawyers representing foreign political interests.