VIENNA, April 9 (Reuters) - Europe's main human rights and security body said unannounced inspections of media NGOs being conducted in Russia could intimidate groups supporting media freedom in the country and have a "chilling effect" on their work.
Dunja Mijatovic, representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said she was concerned about the inspections, which President Vladimir Putin says have been conducted under a new law requiring many non-governmental organisations to register as "foreign agents" if they get foreign funding.
"Any actions to intimidate them and interfere with their activities could impact on media freedom and create a chilling effect on those who champion freedom of the media," she said.
"I call on the authorities to show restraint so these media NGOs can continue their work on media freedom," Mijatovic said.
Many NGOs have refused to register under the law on the grounds they are not acting on behalf of other nations and are not trying to influence Russian politics. For many, the "foreign agent" term evokes Soviet-era repression and Cold War spying.
Activists say visits to their offices from prosecutors and other authorities ranging from tax officials to fire inspectors are part of a campaign to silence criticism of Putin.
Putin this week denied the Kremlin was trying to muzzle NGOs and said Moscow just wanted to monitor the amounts of foreign funding coming into Russia.
"All our actions are connected not with closing and forbidding (foreign-funded NGOs in Russia), but with monitoring financial flows that go to non-governmental Russian organisations which are involved in internal political activity, and this money comes from outside of the country," he said at a news conference on Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)