Third party intervention in ‘Foreign Agent Law’ case before the ECtHR
Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) has filed a third party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the case of Levada Centre and others v. Russia. The case concerns a challenge to the requirement for Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding and engage in ‘political activities’ to register as ‘foreign agents’ under the Foreign Agents Law.
The applicants here are NGOs forced to register as ‘foreign agents’ under that law. They complain that, as a consequence, they have suffered discrimination and have had their rights to free expression and assembly violated. They also complain that the restrictions imposed by the state have been imposed for an improper purpose.
The case is brought against a background of increasing hostility towards NGOs, bloggers, journalists and other human rights defenders from governments who have introduced legislation regulating how they operate. There is an emerging trend of states adopting laws restricting the activities of individuals and organisations trying to expose state led corruption and human rights abuses, not least through restrictions on how they fund their activities. Many of these laws contain provisions imposing constraints on NGOs and other human rights defenders seeking to access foreign funding, requiring them to identify themselves to the public as ‘foreign agents’, and imposing criminal sanctions in the event of non-compliance. Related to this trend, laws directly targeting journalists in order to prevent them carrying out their work effectively have also been introduced in some states.
MLDI’s intervention primarily focuses on the impact these foreign agent type laws have on the right to freedom of expression. The intervention notes the important role NGOs and other human rights defenders play in society, and highlights the proliferation of these laws in other jurisdictions and how they have affected the work of human rights defenders there. It also addresses the ‘chilling effect’ such laws will invariably have and argues that any legislation restricting the activities of NGOs should be subject to a ‘strict scrutiny’ test. Finally, it sets out the factors to be considered in assessing whether foreign agent type laws are used for improper purposes to restrict Convention rights.
MLDI’s Legal Director, Padraig Hughes, said, “NGOs and other human rights defenders play an essential role in exposing state corruption and wrongdoing and they require protection. The Court should examine these laws closely and take into account both the human rights situation in the country generally and the attitude of the authorities towards individuals and organisations who expose corrupt behaviour.”
(Note: MLDI was granted permission by the ECtHR to intervene on condition the submissions do not comment on the facts or merits of the case and only address general principles applicable to the determination of the case.)