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.