On Monday, the Russian state-funded television network RT America met a Justice Department deadline to register as a “foreign agent” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). RT rejects the designation and has vowed to mount a court challenge, but says the possibility of asset freezes and arrests forced it to comply.
The demand is unusual. Although hundreds of foreign entities are registered under FARA, international media outlets are almost entirely exempt, and none have registered in over a decade. RT America is headquartered in Washington, DC, and RT has bureaus in several other cities. Its operational structure closely resembles US-based, state-owned counterparts like BBC America, Al Jazeera English, and China’s CCTV, yet RT stands alone in being compelled to register under a law established in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda.
The Justice Department has not offered a detailed public explanation. But in a January 2017 report accusing Russia of interfering in the 2016 election to elect Donald Trump, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence determined that RT and sister radio network Sputnik “contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging.”
The DNI report does not say if RT had an influence on the American electorate, an unlikely prospect given that its “platform” boasts less than 30,000 daily viewers (and is deemed so marginal that Nielsen excludes it from a survey of the nation’s top 94 cable networks). Instead, the network is chiefly faulted for “highlight[ing] criticism of alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties.” A lengthy appendix—written in 2012, four years before the election—critiques RT for covering Occupy Wall Street and depicting the “current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations”; running “anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health”; hosting “third-party candidate debates and [running] reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates”; and airing programs like Breaking the Set, which is described by the DNI as offering—before ending its run in February 2015—“criticism of US and Western governments as well as the promotion of radical discontent.”
As a foreign agent, RT says it could be forced to hand over the private data of its employees, disclose any contacts with US officials or media, and file its content with the Justice Department within two days of transmission. Decrying what it calls a violation of “democracy and freedom of speech principles,” RT says the foreign-agent designation will subject it to “conditions in which we cannot work” in an attempt to “drive [RT] out of the country.”
Yet RT has found few defenders among the foremost advocates of media freedom and free speech in the United States. The Nation sent queries about RT America’s foreign-agent designation to the leading US civil-liberties and media-freedom groups. Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Poynter Institute, and Columbia Journalism Review did not respond. Human Rights Watch and the National Coalition Against Censorship declined to comment. The silence by Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders contrasts sharply with their condemning of the ongoing Gulf-state effort to close Al Jazeera.
There are some exceptions. Michael W. Macleod-Ball, a legal adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the foreign-agent investigation of Russian outlets “highlights the potential for mischief” in having FARA applied unequally, but that not enough is known about the government’s criteria to reach a conclusion.
Others were less equivocal. “Compelling RT to register under FARA is a bad idea,” says Alexandra Ellerbeck of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “This is a shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades, so we have little information about how its reporting requirements might affect individual journalists. We’re uncomfortable with governments’ deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.”
“You don’t have to like RT to realize that threatening to arrest employees of a state media organization is an incredibly dangerous road to head down,” says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “This 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. It also calls into question how this affects other state broadcasters that operate in the United States. Are these rules only being applied to Russian state television or does the Justice Department plan on issuing these threats to dozens of other foreign broadcasters as well?”
The Washington director for PEN America, Gabe Rottman, says that, while “it’s reasonable to be concerned about foreign influence in elections,…it’s very hard to distinguish between state propaganda and ‘bona fide’ news.” Echoing Timm, Rottman adds that PEN is primarily concerned that deeming a foreign-owned news outlet a foreign agent could lead to “retaliation against U.S.-supported outlets such as Voice of America or public broadcasters like the BBC.”
The retaliation has begun. On Wednesday, the Russian parliament passed a bill requiring all mass-media outlets in Russia that receive overseas funding to register as foreign agents. Calling the RT crackdown an “attack on our media,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters Saturday that “we will definitely respond and it will be reciprocal.” Along with the US government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, the Russian government has reportedly considered CNN International as another possible target of censure.
Whatever happens, it is unlikely that the impact will be limited to foreign outlets in either the United States or Russia. The US government’s decision to label RT as a “foreign agent” has implications for any journalist in the United States, and the First Amendment under which they operate. With the threat of “foreign agent” hovering over résumés, it is hard to imagine that journalists won’t think twice about taking jobs at RT (or employers about hiring them), of sharing its articles or videos on social media, or even of voicing opinions in line with RT’s content, which US officials have deemed noteworthy enough to include in a national intelligence report.
But yet, along with the multiple civil-liberties groups, RT’s counterparts in journalism have also been silent. No top US media outlet has criticized the move against RT, and even progressive publications and broadcasts have largely ignored it.
The media indifference appears out of step with repeated warnings from prominent voices of Trump’s threats to press freedom, but is perhaps unsurprising given the open tolerance of McCarthyite tactics across the spectrum. At a recent Atlantic Council event, columnist and Brookings Fellow James Kirchick advocated “private sector initiatives…to name and shame and isolate RT and push it out of the respectable precincts of society.” For “young up-and-coming 22- and 23-year old journalists in the West,” considering employment at RT, Kirchick explained, “maybe they won’t take that job offer if they know they will never get a job afterwards at any reputable news organization.” On Twitter, a former Daily Show producer has just urged fellow comedians who work at RT’s comedy news show, Redacted Tonight, to stop being “useful idiots,” and instead “get work elsewhere.” At least one person has already lost their job for the mere act of appearing on Sputnik’s airwaves. As Anoa Changa recently noted in The Nation, Marcus Ferrell was forced to resign from the campaign staff of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams for the offense of giving an interview to Sputnik’s By Any Means Necessary.
Registering as a foreign agent will keep RT America on the air, but other challenges loom, along with other targets. Congress, led by Democrats, is also eyeing the network, along with any other information source that could be deemed “Russian-linked.” At recent congressional hearings on how Russia allegedly used its platforms to influence the 2016 campaign, lawmakers denounced Facebook, Twitter, and Google for failing to thwart “the beginning of cyberwarfare” (Senator Dianne Feinstein), “a deliberate and multifaceted manipulation of the American people by agents of a hostile foreign power” (Senator Richard Burr), and a campaign that is “much more widespread than one election” (Senator Marco Rubio) and will continue to attempt to “set us against ourselves and to undermine our democracy” (Senator Mark Warner).
Senator Feinstein has called on Facebook to hand over any information on “Russia-connected accounts,” which in her formulation means “a person or entity… that may be connected in some way to Russia, including by user language setting, user currency or other payment method.” Feinstein also wants to widen the investigative net to private communications. She has asked Twitter to hand over all direct messages sent and received by Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange and a number of related accounts, including, according to Assange, messages sent to his US attorney.
Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) has urged Google to consider banning RT from YouTube, where it has a wide audience. Told by Google general counsel Kent Walker that a “careful” review of RT had found no “violations of our policies against hate speech and incitement to violence and the like,” Speier insisted that the network is “a propaganda machine,” and “an arm of one of our adversaries.”
After initially rebuffing congressional demands, the tech giants are falling in line. Facebook has vowed to work with the government and impose sweeping changes to its platform in order to stop anyone from “[using] our tools to undermine democracy.”
The company’s initial steps include seeking job applicants with national security clearances.
Twitter recently announced a ban on all advertising by RT and Sputnik. It has also informed lawmakers that its new criteria for identifying a Russian-linked account now includes merely having a user name with Cyrillic characters or tweeting frequently in the Russian language.
The Federal Communications Commission has also been summoned to combat Russian influence. In September, three Congress members asked FCC chair Ajit Pai to investigate Sputnik on the grounds it “was used as part of the Kremlin’s effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.” Since Washington, DC, “listeners can tune their radios to 105.5 FM to hear Sputnik,” the lawmakers warned, “the Russian government may be using our country’s own airwaves to undermine our democracy.” But Sputnik did not hit the FM airwaves until July 2017, eight months after the election, suggesting that the trio is either ill-informed or believes that the Russian influence campaign extends to time travel.
The impact of Russiagate on media freedom is worthy of sober consideration. In the name of protecting US democracy from foreign attack, we are threatening the democratic norms we purport to defend.