Russian news agency RT now under scrutiny as foreign agent

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty images

WASHINGTON — RT, the Russian government television network, disclosed Monday that one of its U.S. affiliates has been notified by the Justice Department that it must register as a foreign agent that is disseminating propaganda in the United States.

The statement issued by RT’s editor in chief Margarita Simonyan in Moscow is the strongest sign yet the Justice Department may be moving to crack down on the operations of RT and another Russian news agency, Sputnik, by forcing them to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act — a World War II-era law that requires foreign principals that are seeking to influence U.S. public opinion to disclose their full activities and sources of funding.

“The company that supplies all services for RT America channel, including TV production and operations, in the U.S., has received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, claiming that the company is obligated to register under FARA due to the work it does for RT,” Simonyan said in a statement that was posted on RT’s website.

RT did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News. A Justice Department spokesman declined comment. But the disclosure by RT came the same day Yahoo News reported that the FBI has obtained thousands of internal Sputnik emails as part of an investigation into whether that news agency, which is technically separate from RT, must also register under FARA.

Both RT and Sputnik are operated by companies that are funded by the Russian government and were identified in a U.S. intelligence report in January as being arms of Russia’s “state-run propaganda machine” that served as a “platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.” They were both depicted as playing roles in Russia’s “influence campaign” aimed at boosting Donald Trump and denigrating Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. As an example, the report said, Sputnik and RT “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan attend a multimedia exhibition marking the 10th anniversary of the RT TV Channel in 2015. (Photo: Klimentyev Mikhail/TASS via ZUMA Press)

The Justice Department action was quickly applauded by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a chief sponsor of a bill in Congress to strengthen Justice Department enforcement of FARA in order to curb Russian propaganda in the United States. Shaheen said she was “very encouraged” by the FBI’s inquiry into Sputnik, and, if accurate, its letter to the RT affiliate was “long overdue.”

“There’s ample evidence that RT America is coordinating with the Russian government to spread disinformation and undermine our democratic process,” Shaheen added: “We can’t allow foreign agents, particularly those working on behalf of our adversaries, to skirt our laws.”

But Simonyan, the RT editor who formerly served on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign staff, strongly hinted that any Justice Department actions could have repercussions for the U.S. news organizations that operate in Moscow.

“I wonder how U.S. media outlets, which have no problems while working in Moscow, and that are not required to register as foreign agents, will treat this initiative,” she said. She also blasted the Justice Department’s action as part of a “war” against freedom of the press and journalists. “Those who invented [freedom of speech] have buried it,” she said.

There is an exemption in FARA for news organizations and media outlets. Foreign media outlets in this country have rarely registered under the law. Any Justice Department action targeting RT and Sputnik could have major implications for state-owned media outlets from other countries. If the Russian news organizations were required to register, they would not be banned from operating. However, they would be required to file reports about their content and finances and their news products would have to be labeled as government propaganda. The news services’ executives could technically face criminal charges and fined if they are found to have willfully failed to register.

The finding by the U.S. intelligence community last January that RT and Sputnik were used by the Kremlin as part of its campaign to interfere in the presidential election has spurred calls for the Justice Department to use FARA to police the Russian outlets. However, some experts have raised concerns that going after Russia’s American media presence could play into the Kremlin’s hand by hurting America’s reputation as a haven for a free press. U.S.-backed news outlets in Russia have faced government pressure, but both Sputnik and RT have extensively covered other countries’ attempts to regulate them.

The RT statement did not disclose the identity of the U.S. company that received the letter from the Justice Department. But a report released last week by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, entitled “Agent of Influence: Should Russia’s RT Register as a Foreign Agent,” states that RT contracts with two District of Columbia registered entities — RTTV America and RTTV Studios — that produce video content, tape shows, and provide crew services and studio facilities for RT. Both U.S. entities, whose offices are located in RT’s Washington bureau, are owned and controlled by Russian businssman Alex Yazlovsky, who is a dual U.S. and Russian citizen, according to the report. A former RT staffer told Yahoo a news that RTTV America handled much of the production and operations for the channel.

Read more from Yahoo News: