As freedom of press continues to suffer worldwide making journalists’ job more difficult by the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a controversial law allowing independent journalists and bloggers to be labelled as “foreign agents.”

Russian legislation passed in 2012 already gave authorities the power to brand media organisations and NGOs as foreign agents, a term that has Soviet-era overtones. The new law, which now extends to individuals, will come into effect immediately, according to a document published on the Russian government website.

Foreign agents, defined as involved in politics and receiving money from abroad, must register with the justice ministry, label publications with the tag and submit detailed paperwork or face fines.

Nine human rights NGOs, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have expressed concern that the amendments may be aimed not only at journalists but also at bloggers and internet users who benefit from scholarships, funding or revenues from a relevant media outlet.

The RSF’s 2019 Press Freedom Ranking, Russia ranks 149 out of 180 countries. RSF’s recent report on Russia’s “sovereign internet law”, adopted in May, says that “the country takes internet censorship in Russia to a new level” as the government is attempting to gain control over the infrastructure of the web.

“It is seeking to block content even more effectively, surveil communication completely and, if necessary, be able to cut the Russian internet off from the worldwide web. In the spring, thousands of people protested against this law and for the freedom of the internet. In the summer, tens of thousands took to the streets for a greater voice in politics. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested and quite a few were sentenced to prison.”

“At the same time, independent online media and civil society organisations’ information portals that resist the Kremlin’s dictates experienced an unimagined wave of support,” said the report.

NGOs said in a joint statement last month the law was “a further step to restrict free and independent media” and “a strong tool to silence opposition voices.” Authors of the bill have said it is intended to “perfect” existing legislation on “foreign agents” that already covers NGOs and media organisations. Russia says it wants the law as a tit-for-tat mechanism if its journalists are defined as foreign agents in the West.

Russia first passed legislation allowing media organisations to be slapped with the label in 2017, after Kremlin-funded RT television was declared a foreign agent in the United States.

Russian opposition politician Alexi Navalny’s organisation has been branded a foreign agent, as has US-financed media outlet Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. The term foreign agent was used negatively during the Stalinist era in the 1970s and 1980s for opponents accused of being paid by the West.