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Article

Images and perceptions of human rights defenders in Russia: An examination of public opinion in the age of the ‘foreign agent’ law

In various world regions, human rights defenders (HRDs) often become targets for smear campaigns that seek to discredit and marginalize them. Russia’s “foreign agent” law, which brands NGOs as “foreign agents”—a phrase that carries Soviet-era connotations of spies or traitors—is just one example of states’ attempts to cultivate an unfavorable image of rights defenders in society. Yet, despite the global context of such stigmatizing campaigns and their potential to put defenders at further risk, there is little systematic knowledge on public perception of rights defenders and the effects of smear campaigns on social attitudes toward them. This article seeks to address this gap and explores attitudes toward HRDs and human rights organizations in Russia. Drawing on representative public opinion data sets from 2015 and 2016, it demonstrates that the respondents largely lack familiarity with actors in the human rights field.