WASHINGTON – The U.S. Justice Department has asked the Russian broadcaster RT to register its American operations as a “foreign agent,” putting fresh pressure on a major media group that Washington regards as Moscow’s propaganda arm.
RT said late Monday that the company that supplies all the services for its RT America channel had been told by the DOJ in a letter that it is obligated to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is aimed at lobbyists and lawyers representing foreign political interests.
RT is “consulting with our lawyers and are reviewing the request,” spokeswoman Anna Belkina said Tuesday.
On its website, RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan condemned the move as part of a U.S. “war” on Russian media.
“The war the U.S. establishment wages with our journalists is dedicated to all the starry-eyed idealists who still believe in freedom of speech. Those who invented it have buried it,” she said.
The Moscow-based broadcaster has become a focus of the investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
RT has been singled out for its links to President Donald Trump’s discredited former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Flynn, a former defense intelligence chief, was paid tens of thousands of dollars in December 2015 to attend an RT anniversary gala where he sat with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In January, a U.S. intelligence community report on Russian election interference labeled RT “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”
Originally written in 1938 to blunt Nazi propaganda on the eve of World War II, the Foreign Agents Registration Act has been used to shed light on who in Washington might be working for foreign governments.
FARA specifically exempts U.S. and foreign news organizations, and the DOJ focus on the company that supplies services for RT might be a way around that stipulation.
Justice Department official declined to comment on the issue.
The move comes as the U.S. government fights what it calls a barrage of “fake” news from Russian media and online outlets aimed at interfering in U.S. domestic politics.
According to reports, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating Sputnik, part of state-controlled Russian news group Rossiya Segodnya, the former RIA Novosti.
Washington journalist Andrew Feinberg, who worked for Sputnik early this year, said he was interviewed by FBI agents on Sept. 1.
Feinberg said the agents focused on how Sputnik operates as it generates news across different interfaces and operates a Washington radio station.
The questioning, according to Feinberg, seemed directed at whether Sputnik operates more like a foreign agent or lobbyist than other news operations.
“There are clear differences in the editorial process” at Sputnik, he said. “They do not practice journalism the way a bona fide news agency practices journalism.”
Nevertheless, U.S. pressure on Russian news outlets raised worries that a backlash will be felt by U.S. outlets and even local journalists in Moscow.
Courtney Radsch of the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern that the move “could be used by Russian authorities to justify their repressive media policies.”
“Russia already heavily censors its information space, including by branding some of its most prominent human rights defenders as foreign agents, in an attempt to delegitimize and vilify them,” Radsch said.