The decision by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to compel the Russian-state media outlet RT (an English-language cable news network) to register as a “foreign agent” is intended to not only stigmatize its reporting as foreign propaganda but also tar anyone who appears on its programs as Russian dupes.
RT will register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938, the aim of which, according to the nonpartisan transparency watchdog Sunlight Foundation, was “To make it easier for federal counterespionage authorities to keep tabs on U.S.-based individuals and other groups helping to drum up support for the Nazi movement and keep America neutral in the war.” Amendments added in 1966 shifted its focus to political activities, such as lobbying.
But whatever the legal basis for requiring RT to register as a foreign agent, the Justice Department’s decision is clearly in response to intense domestic political and media pressure. Many of the assumptions behind that pressure are dubious or based on myths.
It is the case that RT is not the first media outlet to have been compelled to register: China Daily, a Chinese-state funded news outlet; NHK Cosmomedia, a Japanese TV news operation; and KBS America, a South Korean company, are also currently registered under FARA.
But what makes the current move by the DOJ even more disturbing is that it is part of a larger campaign being waged by politicians and a plethora of American media organizations and Washington think tanks to purge what is relentlessly referred to as “Russian disinformation” from American political discourse.
Whatever the debatable aspects of “Russiagate”—which itself might be reasonably defined as the year-and-a-half-long (and counting) campaign by elements of the American political establishment to discredit the outcome of last year’s presidential election on the ground of Russian interference—the current obsession with countering Russian “disinformation” may not stop there. Indeed, demanding RT register as a “foreign agent” may set a troubling precedent.
In current mainstream American usage, “Russian disinformation” means virtually any and every news story and commentary that deviates from the narrative of the US political establishment. Indeed, this delegitimizing of dissent applies not only to “Russiagate” but to opinions and analysis relating to US-Russian relations generally. We are now, and have been for some time, living in a world where Russia is not just seen as a country with a different set of national interests and priorities from ours, but as instead a wholly malevolent actor on the world stage, responsible for “weaponizing” everything from information to language to history, finance and, yes, even the weather.
Worryingly, not one major US media outlet has protested the DOJ’s decision to compel RT to register as a foreign agent. Some, shamefully, have even endorsed it. Many of America’s traditional defenders of the First Amendment have remained quiet—and therefore complicit. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement Monday stating, “We’re uncomfortable with governments deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda”; the Freedom of the Press Foundation warned that the DOJ decision “…opens up serious risk of retaliation for many brave journalists who work in Russia—both independent reporters who may get funding from the US and the US government’s own Voice of America.”
Indeed, the United States’ compelling of RT to register is the latest unnecessary escalation in the new Cold War: In a classic tit-for-tat, the Russian government is already preparing to retaliate, with lawmakers announcing last week that they were amending the country’s foreign agent law to include media organizations.
Some media monitors contend that forcing RT to register under FARA will make basic, routine journalistic work impossible. Whether that is true remains unclear, though RT will be required to issue a disclaimer accompanying its content. RT will also be required to report its activities and funding sources to the DOJ twice a year.
Nevertheless, stigmatizing RT as “Russian disinformation” would seem to be, given the outlet’s negligible audiences, completely unnecessary. It is a gratuitous slap in the face of Russia, which the United States—whether we like it or not—needs as a partner on a wide range of issues, from nuclear non-proliferation to terrorism, regardless of who occupies the Kremlin.
Still worse, branding RT’s news coverage as merely “Russian disinformation” will only further crowd out dissenting views and circumscribe the robust debate we desperately need, making proponents of alternative views even more fearful and self-censoring.
Whatever the biases of RT, and to whatever extent its coverage is factually inaccurate, the channel scarcely reaches the American public compared with many US media outlets that are arguably no less biased and no more factual. Behind all of this lurks the conceit that as Americans we have everything to teach and nothing to learn from a Russian-funded broadcaster. But is it really such a terrible thing for Americans to hear different opinions and reporting on world events that conflict with those of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox? Must we be at pains to stigmatize a few drops of propaganda from another government, however “hostile” it allegedly may be, while getting routine propaganda from our own? And isn’t there implicit contempt for American voters implied in the charge that RT transformed decisive segments of the electorate into zombie-like pro-Trump voters through a relatively negligible stream of “foreign” news reports, commentaries and ads? Are we supposed to believe the US media environment is so fragile and vulnerable that it can be poisoned by a relatively tiny amount of Russian messaging?
There is a telling irony, ignored by the mainstream America media, in all of this.
In 2012, Russia passed its own “foreign agents” law which required NGOs and other independent groups that received foreign funding to register with the Russian Ministry of Justice. At the time, the law was correctly seen as an attempt by the Russian government to tighten its control over Russian civil society, in an attempt to limit dissent. The law drew pointed criticism from the US State Department and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. (Russia is not the only country that has proposed or used foreign-agent laws to register civil-society organizations or media— Hungary, Ukraine, and Israel have debated or passed similar laws, according to the International Center for-Not-for-Profit Law.)
Indeed, as recently as this past September, Human Rights Watch (HRW) decried the effects of the Russian law, complaining that “For the past four years the Kremlin has sought to stigmatize criticism or alternative views of government policy as disloyal, foreign-sponsored, or even traitorous.” HRW denounced the law’s “enduring, central feature,” its requirement that groups must “register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive any foreign funding and engage in broadly defined ‘political activity.’”
In this context, the closing lines of George F. Kennan’s famed “Long Telegram” remain perhaps more relevant than ever. At the very start of the first Cold War, Kennan urged Americans to “have [the] courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society…. the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”
It would seem we, in the unbridled suspicion and paranoia with which we approach nearly everything that emanates out of Putin’s Russia, are now in the process of falling into the very trap Kennan warned about so many years ago.