In September, the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked Russian news agency RT to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agent’s Registration Act (FARA). In response, Russian Senators have drafted legislation that would ‘blacklist’ some US media outlets in Russia, including Voice of America (VOA) and CNN. Despite these negative consequences, the US should not be deterred from taking future action against disingenuous media sources.
Russia’s policies towards US broadcasting have been deteriorating for some time independently of the RT affair, and the US needs to convey that it will not tolerate disinformation from the Russian state.
US Response to Russian Propaganda
Let’s be clear on what the Foreign Agents Registration Act actually does. It compels RT to file paperwork that details the sources of its funding, it requires RT to label some of its content as being representative of government views, and it forces RT to send any informational material to the FARA offices. As pointed out in an earlier blog, FARA does not limit the informational capabilities of RT, nor does it restrict or censor the organization’s content. RT is allowed to put out whatever information it would like, as long as it discloses other information about its sources of funding.
RT isn’t the first media organization the DOJ has asked to register under FARA. Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean news agencies have been registered as foreign agents for anywhere from one to three decades. FARA is a perfect example of the US taking steps to limit Russian influence without compromising its democratic institutions, such as freedom of the press.
Russia Hits Back (Again)
Although the retaliation against US news networks may seem like a reason to reconsider the prudence of forcing RT to register as a foreign agent, it’s important to examine Russian actions in broader context.
US broadcasters like Voice of America (VOA) already face undue barriers from the Russian state. Although Russia claims that the new measures are intended purely as a proportional response to US action against RT, the reality is that Russia would have restricted US news agencies regardless of how RT was being treated.
In early October of 2017, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova emphasized that media restriction was a direct response to US actions when she stated that “We have never used Russian law in relation to foreign correspondents as a lever of pressure, or censorship, or some kind of political influence, never. But this is a particular case.”
The assertion that the Russian state has refrained from using law to exert pressure on foreign correspondents is misleading. In the past decade, the Russian state has changed its laws to ensure that American networks – and foreign networks generally – have an extremely difficult time broadcasting.
In 2014, the Duma passed a law that limits foreign investment in media to 20%. This cap represents an additional barrier for foreign entities hoping to broadcast in Russia and allows the Kremlin to further consolidate media control.
American networks face even more difficulties. In 2014, Dmitry Kiselyov, head of Rossiya Segodnya Information Agency, refused to renew the contract of Voice of America (VOA), claiming that the network had “nothing original to say.” Since then, Voice of America and RFE/RL (whose contract expired in 2012 under similar circumstances) have been broadcasting via satellite and on the internet.
State sovereignty committee member Oleg Morozov has said that blacklisting will include measures like limiting broadcasts and terminating existing contracts. Since VOA RFE/RL’s contracts have already been terminated, the networks will likely face even more limits on their satellite and internet capabilities.
CNN – another organization listed as ‘undesirable’ – has more to lose. In 2015, CNN signed a 10 year universal contract with Russia’s media watchdog organization that allowed it to broadcast with Russian satellite and cable providers. Presumably, being blacklisted would limit CNN’s capacity to contract with these Russian satellite and cable providers. CNN’s audience in Russia is small, averaging about 45,000 per night in large cities.
While it is unfortunate the US broadcasting services are under duress, the US should not let this deter it from taking measures in the future to limit Russian disinformation. The Russian state will not suddenly lift restrictions on freedom of the press, no matter how favorably the US treats Russian news agencies. The US should send a message that it will continue the fight against disinformation, regardless of Russian countermeasures.