The Media Wars Continue: RT Considered “Foreign Agent” In America

October 12, 2017

The American elections are now long behind us, yet the American political scene is still stymied by allegations of Russian interference.  Last week the US Department of Justice requested state – backed channel Russia Today (RT) and its sister network Sputnik to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). The Act imposes restrictions on news outlets actions and seriously hinders its functionality on American territory.

RT Editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan has revealed that RT is required to register as a “foreign agent” before October 17, but registering under the FARA requirements and providing all personal information about people working there, including salaries and home addresses may put journalists at risk. She also commented that the demand is the result of internal political turmoil in Washington. “We have been asked to register as a foreign agent. This may entail restrictions that will not allow us to operate in the country. This is the price of the assault on freedom of speech that was created by our Western partners. It’s all very sad. It is not us who started this, but we can only guess how it will be moving forward.”

However, Russia did not wait long to impose counter-sanctions on the US.  After just a couple of days the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mariya Zakharova, promised to act in a similar fashion against American media outlets such as “Voice of America”, “Radio Free Europe” and “Radio Liberty”.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that RT and Sputnik “had come under unprecedented pressure” in the US. He also warned that if the US continues to violate the freedoms of Russian news agencies, “actions on the basis of the principle of reciprocity cannot be excluded.” He also added that Russia respects press freedom and treats foreign media equally.  Though there are numerous contradictions regarding respect for freedom of the press in Russia, it is hard to deny that the ban is politically motivated after fresh evidence of Russian interference in the US presidential elections was made known recently.

The FARA was adopted by American lawmakers back in 1938 in order to combat Nazi and Communist propaganda. A failure to register as a “foreign agent” when requested can result up to 5 years sentence, a fine of up to $10,000 and the companies programs will be taken off air.  Simonyan is afraid to disclose the personal information about her employees as it means that they may face increased risk.  The Moscow Times has stated that employees are already leaving their work places as they are in a “fear of their security.”

In the case that RT is officially labelled a “foreign agent”, it will create difficulties and impose strict requirements on the target company such as providing details of financial transactions and sensitive materials. On top of that, all programs and materials both on TV and online will be required to identify as being produced in the interest of the Russian government.  The channel will also need to declare in advance all upcoming interviews as well as their communication with authorities, which they would surely prefer stayed confidential.

But the Kremlin always manages to pull something out of the bag in return.  The Russian version of the FADA came into action in 2012 and limits foreign ownership in radio stations at 48 per cent of shares.  As a result of the initial implementation of the Act, Radio Freedom lost its broadcasting rights in Russia and switched to Internet broadcasting only.

Several Sputnik journalists have stated that there was a series of FBI investigations revealing the close ties of the news outlet with the Kremlin and its strict control over the information in order to “advance Moscow’s political goals.”  On the other side, American news outlets in Moscow also claim that they have experienced pressure from the Russian authorities.

Founded back in 2005 by the Russian government, Russia Today (now called RT) was expected to bring to a western audience a vision of the world from the “Russian perspective”. Around the world both RT and its sister publication Sputnik are well known as channels of Kremlin propaganda and are often criticized for being breaking rules of impartiality.

Although the current war of words between the US and Russia is largely the result of an internal political conflict in the American presidential administration, the fact that it is taking place with the media is symbolic of the changing landscape of warfare: cyberspace.  So long as governments and service providers are powerless against the affects of targeted international propaganda and fake news, the media (and by extension, the internet) will still be regarded as the 21st century war zone of choice.

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