Spasskaya Tower and St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow.

Spasskaya Tower and St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow.

Foreign agents have been in the news a lot recently—but not the James Bond kind. The Russian TV channel RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and news agency Sputnik were recently required to register as foreign agents under U.S. lobbying law; Russia promptly retaliated by expanding its own “foreign agent” law, forcing Western news outlets do the same. Russian lawmakers have called the move a “reciprocal measure.” The Russian law, however, is very different from the U.S. law, and could have serious consequences for press freedom in the post-Soviet state.

What is FARA?

FARA, or the Foreign Agents Registration Act, is a U.S. law that regulates lobbying on behalf of foreign powers. It was passed in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda but has rarely been enforced since the end of the Cold War.

The law requires individuals or organizations to register as foreign agents if they are involved in political activity as an agent of a foreign government or citizen. Crucially, to qualify as an agent, one must be under the control of a foreign interest, as is a PR firm or employee. Simply receiving money from abroad does not qualify.

The law does not restrict the activities of foreign agents; it merely requires them to to register with the Department of Justice, publish regular statements, and disclose their foreign agent status on published materials.

Why is RT a foreign agent?

FARA explicitly excludes organizations that engage in “bona fide news or journalistic activities,” although there are a few media organizations on the register. The legal case for requiring RT to register rests on two arguments: first, that RT is controlled, not just financed, by a foreign power; and second, that it is an instrument of political influence.

Despite RT’s claims that its programs are “designed merely to inform, not influence,” its reporting is consistently biased. It is hard to treat any organization with an Illuminati correspondent as a serious news source. The declassified intelligence report on the 2016 presidential election describes RT as an essential part of the Russian campaign to influence the election. The same report also highlights RT’s opaque leadership structure and close ties to the Kremlin—evidence that it does not have editorial independence like the BBC, another state-owned news outlet.

What is the Russian “Foreign Agent” Law?

In 2012, the Russian government enacted the “Law on Non-Commercial Organizations,” also known as the “foreign agent” law. Although supposedly modeled after FARA, the Russian law differs in several crucial respects.

Rather than defining foreign agents as those under the control of foreign powers, the law requires any organization that receives funding from abroad, even in small amounts, to register. The Russian definition of “political activity” is also far broader than the U.S. definition. Among the organizations forced to register have been the Saint Petersburg Soldiers’ Mothers and environmental protection groups.

Most of the organizations on the American Foreign Agents Register are lobbyists and PR firms. In contrast, the Russian law—as its official name suggests—is aimed at NGOs, and is used to make life difficult for them. Many of the organizations targeted under the law have had to shut down because of harassment and steep fines.

What next?

The request that RT register as a foreign agent prompted harsh responses from Russian lawmakers. Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that the move was undemocratic, and Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, warned that the Russian government was preparing a “surprise” for Western journalists.

On November 25, President Putin signed into law a new provision expanding the definition of “foreign agent” to cover media organizations. This new law is even broader than the “foreign agent” law, and gives the Russian Ministry of Justice enormous discretion over which news agencies must register. Ironically, even RT could qualify as a foreign agent in Russia under this expanded definition.

Although described as a “tit-for-tat” response to U.S. provocation, the new Russian law is far more expansive than FARA, and leaves all foreign media in Russia at the mercy of the Ministry of Justice. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, two independent media organizations funded by the US government, have already received ominous “warning” letters from the Russian government. Although it is still not clear what measures the Ministry of Justice plans to take, it seems that tough times are ahead for freedom of the press in Russia.

 

Image credit: Flikr/Harry Popoff

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