RT chooses registering as foreign agent over 'criminal case'

RT chooses registering as foreign agent over 'criminal case'

The production company for Russia’s state-funded television channel RT has registered as a foreign agent, according to federal disclosures that appeared on Monday.

The company, T&R Productions, is based in Washington and filed paperwork telling the Justice Department that its work benefits ANO TV-Novosti, the arm of the Russian government that broadcasts RT around the globe.

The registration is required for anyone who does work on behalf of a foreign government, political party or official in the United States. Other state-run news outlets, such as China Daily, are also registered under the foreign lobbying law, called the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

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“Americans have a right to know who is acting in the United States to influence the U.S. government or public on behalf of foreign principals,” acting Assistant Attorney General Dana Boente said in a statement. “The Department of Justice is committed to enforcing FARA and expects compliance with the law by all entities engaged in specified activities on behalf of any foreign principal, regardless of its nationality.”

RT has been pushing back against requests from the Justice Department to register as a foreign agent, and initially had a Nov. 13 deadline to file the registration paperwork. The Justice Department pushed for the disclosure in the wake of federal and congressional probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a post earlier on Monday, RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan said the media outlet has chosen to register as a foreign agent rather than face a potential criminal proceeding in the U.S. She added, “we congratulate the American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it.”

T&R Productions said in its disclosure form that it exists to "produce news, talk show, and entertainment programs that are designed merely to inform, not influence."

"Programs produced cover a broad range of news and talk show topics, reflect balance regarding commentary, and are not aimed to primarily benefit any foreign government or political party," the forms say.

Willful violation of FARA is a felony, punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison, but there have only been seven criminal cases in the past five decades.

It has been known as a compliance statute, by which foreign agents can avoid getting in trouble with federal law enforcement officials if they turn in the required paperwork, even if it's late. 

In a statement, the Justice Department emphasized that registering under FARA does not limit free speech or journalistic activities; FARA obligates T&R Productions to file paperwork every six months detailing their finances and contacts with public officials that involve attempts to influence U.S. policy.

"Other U.S. agents of foreign media entities are currently registered under FARA and continue to operate freely in the United States," the Justice Department said in a statement on Monday.

In the case of China Daily, a newspaper, the FARA Unit is sent a copy of every issue, it told The Hill.

U.S. intelligence agencies have alleged RT, formerly known as Russia Today, is a propaganda outlet for the Kremlin that helped fuel political disputes in 2016.

The Russian Embassy in the U.S. last week criticized the U.S. government for requiring RT to register, calling it “an unacceptable violation of the international norms of free press.”

Russian lawmakers are drafting retaliatory measures, warning of “an immediate symmetrical response.”

— Updated at 4:17 p.m.