How to counter foreign propaganda on TV

How to counter foreign propaganda on TV
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If you have ever watched Russia Today (or RT as it’s better known), it probably didn’t take long to realize the TV network has a decidedly pro-Russia stance. And, if you’ve never seen RT just trust the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s assessment that it “conducts strategic messaging for the Russian government,” and played an important role in Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. But, what should be done about RT?

To many, the answer was simple: RT should be forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). And they did. Yet, this has done little to solve the problem of RT. In fact, it has arguably made the problem worse by setting a precedent for the U.S. stifling press freedom, leading to retaliatory actions against Western media abroad, and providing American viewers with little awareness of the Russian governments’ control of RT.

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Fortunately, the Countering Foreign Propaganda Act, introduced Tuesday by Reps. Seth MoultonSeth Wilbur Moulton11 Dems float anti-Pelosi leadership plan: reports To cure Congress, elect more former military members Hillicon Valley: North Korean IT firm hit with sanctions | Zuckerberg says Facebook better prepared for midterms | Big win for privacy advocates in Europe | Bezos launches B fund to help children, homeless MORE (D-Mass.) and Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikNumber of GOP women in House could fall to World War II levels, Republican CEO says GOP lacks good funding mechanism for women candidates, says Republican CEO Pelosi calls on Ryan to bring long-term Violence Against Women Act to floor MORE (R-N.Y.), provides a much better path forward. This bipartisan legislation would guarantee press freedom while also guaranteeing that Americans are made aware of exactly who is funding the TV they’re watching. It would do this by empowering the Federal Communications Commission to let Americans know when they’re watching foreign propaganda.

 

To understand why FCC reforms are a vital solution to counter foreign propaganda on TV, it’s important to understand just how inadequate the current U.S. response has been to RT’s role in Russian interference in the 2016 election.

While RTTV and their operating company, T&R Productions, registered as foreign agents, this provided much more paperwork than transparency. Sure, we learned that Mikhail Solodovnikov is the general manager of T&R and is paid a hearty $670,000 salary and we got to see hundreds of pages of contracts from RTTV and T&R Productions. But these FARA filings did little to solve the real problem with RT —letting viewers know RT is Russian government propaganda.

The registration did lead to Russian government retaliation via a law requiring any media outlet in Russia receiving foreign funding to register as a foreign agent. Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said the Russians’ intentions were clear as “this legislation is tailor-made to be selectively and politically enforced, and to silence voices they do not want Russian people to hear.”

To be sure, the Russian retaliation against RT’s FARA registration appears to go far beyond what is required of FARA registrants and RT shouldn’t have felt singled-out for registering under FARA as they were simply joining the ranks of ChineseJapanese, and South Korean media outlets that have been registered under FARA for decades. But, then every Russian accusation that this was an infringement on press freedom was confirmed when RT was stripped of its congressional press credentials. These credentials grant media outlets significantly more access to Congress, including access to the press galleries of the House and Senate floors. In other words, revoking RT’s congressional press credentials explicitly impeded freedom of the press.

This will serve as a pretext for autocratic regimes looking to crackdown on press freedom abroad. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) FARA has already been used to justify measures that restrict civil society in a number of foreign countries, including Hungary, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Ukraine. The language of these laws does differ from FARA, but if these, or any other, countries so choose they can adopt the exact language used to deny RT’s congressional news credentials to deny press freedoms in their country.

Fortunately, Moulton and Stefanik’s Countering Foreign Propaganda Act provides the best solution to the problem of RT and other foreign propaganda TV in the U.S. Their proposal ensures that American viewers of foreign government controlled TV are made abundantly aware of who is funding what they’re watching, while not denying the networks’ press freedom, thus reducing the possibility of retaliation on Western media abroad.

Their bill doesn’t require journalists working for foreign media to register as “foreign agents,” but it does require that foreign media networks let viewers know, at least once an hour, if they are funded and under the editorial control of a foreign government.

The bill fights foreign interference in American democracy while not losing sight of what makes that democracy great. It is essential legislation for defending the 2018 election, and future elections, from undue foreign influence.

Ben Freeman, Ph.D., is the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, and author of “The Foreign Policy Auction,” an investigation of foreign influence in America.