Russian news outlet Sputnik registers with DOJ as foreign agent

Russian news outlet Sputnik registers with DOJ as foreign agent
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The Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik has registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, disclosing the terms of its radio broadcast agreement with a Washington, D.C.-area station, according to new disclosures.

The registration comes in the same week that another Russian government-owned media outlet, RT, had its U.S.-based production company file similar paperwork that is required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). 

This summer, Sputnik took over a FM radio station in the Washington suburb of Reston, Va., that had previously played bluegrass music. Sputnik said its aim was to “bring the latest exclusive stories and exciting news and talk shows to the American audience.” 

In the contract disclosed to the Justice Department, the outlet said it would be leasing the channel 105.5 FM for $900,000 — or $30,000 per month — to Reston Translator to broadcast Sputnik content 24 hours per day, seven days a week through 2019. 

Communications attorney John Garziglia, a part owner of Reston Translator, said the decision to work with Sputnik was a business decision, rather than a political one, after Bluegrass Country could no longer afford to put its music on the airwaves, according to The Washington Post. 

Previously, both RT and Sputnik content had only been available online. In July, however, the Sputnik radio network began broadcasting from an office located only blocks from the White House.

The Justice Department had asked the outlets to register under FARA, a World War II-era law that aims to shine a light on foreign influence on U.S. policymaking and public opinion. 

Following the 2016 presidential elections, the U.S. intelligence community determined that the Russian government-owned Sputnik and RT helped with a disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the outcome of the election. 

Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of both RT and Sputnik, had pushed back against the Justice Department requests to register as a foreign agent, calling it an attempt to suppress free speech.

“Between a criminal case and registration, we chose the latter,” she said in a statement when RT chose to register under FARA, adding in a dig at the government. “We congratulate American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it.”

Other state-owned media outlets are also registered as foreign agents, such as China Daily, and the foreign agent status does nothing to impede newsgathering or production activities. 

Foreign agents are required to submit paperwork outlining business arrangements, including contract documents and payments, and any contacts made to shape U.S. policy in ways that aren’t related to journalistic endeavors.

Even so, the Russian government has threatened to slap similar designations on outside journalists, particularly American ones, in retaliation for the FARA registrations. No details of what kind of restrictions, or which outlets would be targeted, have been revealed.

Earlier this week, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament approved legislation that would give prosecutors leeway to pressure American news outlets to register, though other international news organizations may trigger requirements “if there are unfriendly actions” from media companies based in those countries, The Guardian reported

CNN, Radio Liberty and American government-funded Voice of America have been previously floated as targets of the registration requirements, which are still unclear.

Russia’s foreign ministry is also not ruling out the possibility of expelling “unfriendly” outlets from the country, a spokeswoman said last week.

“We have received so many appeals from our citizens demanding that we do something about American media outlets,” Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, told state television last week.