Seven things to know about RT’s foreign agent registration

Seven things to know about RT’s foreign agent registration

RT America announced this week that the Justice Department has asked the company that distributes its content to register as a foreign agent. 

Originally known as Russia Today, RT is a Russian state-owned news organization that operates in English from studios in Washington, D.C., and Europe. 

The DOJ’s request has highlighted Russia’s efforts to get its own political message out in the United States — activities that are broadly of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller as he investigates Russian meddling in last year’s election.

Here’s a rundown of important things to know about the RT registration.

What’s the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA)?

FARA is a law passed during World War II that was aimed at identifying and countering Nazi propaganda in the United States. It is broadly intended to keep attempts at foreign influence transparent.

Anyone in the U.S. who represents a foreign government official or entity controlled or influenced by a foreign government has to register with the Justice Department under FARA. Even the tourism boards of other countries often register.

The law covers not just lobbying, but also public affairs and even political consulting. 

Why did RT have to register? 

Federal lobbying laws come with a media exemption, but there are exceptions.

If the organization is, for example, contacting or involved with U.S. officials in a way not tied to reporting, that could trigger a need to register under FARA.

“My sense is that, the statute is set up so that you might give the benefit of the doubt to a media organization — but only to a point. If it comes to the point where the organization is not involved in traditional newsgathering, that’s where the exemption falls away,” said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who focuses on national security law and constitutional law. 

One RT reporter quit on live television in 2014, saying that the network “whitewashes the actions of Putin” and that it had asked her to “promote Russian foreign policy.”  

The Justice Department must have enough evidence, Vladeck said, to come to that conclusion. 

“Given how weak enforcement of FARA has been historically, I have a hard time thinking that this is an over-aggressive reaction,” Vladeck added. 

There have only been seven cases brought by FARA violations over the last five decades — and many, if not all, convictions were attached to larger charges.

The FBI is also investigating another Russian state-owned media outlet, Sputnik, for potential FARA violations.

Are other news organizations registered as foreign agents?

At least three other media companies have registered with the Justice Department, with the most prominent being China Daily, a state-owned outlet. The other two are companies in Japan and Korea that re-broadcast programming from those countries into the United States. These entities have been registered from one to three decades.

During the Cold War, the state-owned Soviet Life Magazine hired a consulting firm that registered with the Justice Department. Other Russian or Soviet-era publications, both public and private, have also had representatives register as foreign agents in the past, though all of those contracts have been terminated.

Elena Postnikova recently wrote in a blog post for the Atlantic Council titled "U.S. should require Russia's RT to register as a foreign agent" that those include the state-owned outlets TASS and Pravda.

What does registration require RT to do? 

Foreign agents have to file certain paperwork, including bi-annual reports that detail payments from a client and communications intended to influence U.S. policy. The payments that must be disclosed can come from both foreign government officials and non-profits or think tanks. 

FARA requires any “informational material” distributed by a foreign agent to government officials or to the public to be sent to the FARA office. They must also label some portion of their material as being funded by, or expressing the views of, the government. 

In the case of China Daily, it has the disclaimer on its Facebook page and its website’s About Us page. The Justice Department’s FARA office told The Hill that it has every China Daily newspaper from the last two years on file. 

Is RT a mouthpiece for the Russian government? 

The outlet’s critics say that it is, but there is disagreement about whether it actually functions as Russian propaganda.

In January, RT America was singled out in a report from the U.S. intelligence community about the potential impact that Russia had on the 2016 presidential elections.

The report called the outlet a “state-run propaganda machine” that “has positioned itself as a domestic US channel and has deliberately sought to obscure any legal ties to the Russian Government.”

RT is registered in the United States and Russia as a nonprofit organization. 

The BBC, the U.K.’s state-owned media outlet, won a case against RT that argued the Russian network had faked a report on a chemical weapons attack in Syria. RT reported, in a 13-minute piece, that the BBC had “staged” a chemical weapons attack. Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But experts say that the lines aren’t as clearly drawn.

“In our academic work, we decided not to use the word propaganda because it's hard to define propaganda,” said Robert Orttung, a professor at George Washington University that studies Russian media institutions.  

“We certainly put our opinion out there [through U.S.-government funded media organizations like Voice of America], but they are trying to undermine democracy and it's the intent that's different,” he said. Russian government “using the openness of our system to work against [our democratic system]. That's what's going on here.”

The effort surrounding that intent, he says, is often successful — especially because the U.S. is so politically divided. 

RT’s reporting “reaches a small audience of people that are very active on social media, and that's very important to them,” Orttung added.

One Washington lawyer said to The Hill about the registration: “My first thought was: What took so long?” 

What are the potential repercussions? 

The request for a media outlet to register with the government, even if it’s state-owned, is unsettling for some press advocates.

“No matter one's feelings on Russia or Sputnik or RT, I think it's concerning anytime the FBI gets involved in defining who is and isn't a journalist,” Trevor Timm, the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in an email.

“Narrowing the media exception under FARA could not only have implications for all sorts of other foreign news outlets operating in the US, but also for Voice of America or independent journalists operating overseas if Russia chooses to retaliate by investigating them in a similar manner,” he said. 

Putin in 2012 signed a law that required any nonprofit organization that received any foreign funding to register as a foreign agent, pointing directly to FARA as its inspiration. He has used the law to crack down on civil rights organizations. 

“It's an unfortunate move, and quite frankly, it follows in the footsetps Vladimir Putin,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “I would like to see the media exemption pretty well applied, as long as it's not a straight propaganda broadcast. [RT] is operating in the U.S. and has enough American elements to it that I would apply the media exemption.”

How did RT react?

Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, said on Monday that the U.S. government is overreaching. 

"The war the US establishment wages with our journalists is dedicated to all the starry-eyed idealists who still believe in freedom of speech. Those who invented it, have buried it,” she said in the RT article about the registration. 

In July, she said, “When Russia is at war, we are, of course, on Russia's side.”

“The word 'propaganda' has a very negative connotation, but indeed, there is not a single international foreign TV channel that is doing something other than promotion of the values of the country that it is broadcasting from," she added.