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.”