BY MEGAN R. WILSON - 09/12/17 11:15 AM EDT
The company that runs the U.S. version of RT, the Russian state-owned outlet originally known as Russia Today, must register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, signaling that all of their content would be labeled as propaganda from Moscow.
In a report Monday, RT did not name the company that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has compelled to file paperwork under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but blasted the edict as overreaching.
"The war the US 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,” Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, said about the registration.
Media organizations have been exempted from the law, which is wide-ranging in its disclosure requirements and generally applies to political consultants and those working in lobbying or public relations.
It would be a felony if RT is found to have willfully failed to register as a foreign agent, however.
The registration would not stop the organization from operating, but requires regularly submitted paperwork that lists its sources of foreign government-tied revenue and the contacts it makes in the United States, and it would require any reporting to be labeled as being influenced or financed by the Russian government.
In January, RT America was singled out in a report from the U.S. intelligence community about the potential impact that Russia had on the 2016 presidential elections.
The report from the U.S. intelligence community called the outlet a “state-run propaganda machine” that “has positioned itself as a domestic U.S channel and has deliberately sought to obscure any legal ties to the Russian Government.”
RT has also contracted with Julian Assange, who runs WikiLeaks and is suspected of leaking internal emails from the Democratic National Committee. The intelligence report said that some employed by RT “actively collaborated with WikiLeaks” during the presidential election.
“The word 'propaganda' has a very negative connotation, but indeed, there is not a single international foreign TV channel that is doing something other than promotion of the values of the country that it is broadcasting from," Simonyan said, according to an article in Business Insider from January. “When Russia is at war, we are, of course, on Russia's side.”
RT's registration could have wide-ranging implications for similar news organizations around the world. For example, Russia could retaliate and crack down on Voice of America, a U.S. government-funded media network that operates internationally.
Sputnik, another English-language Russian government-funded news outlet, is also in the crosshairs of the Justice Department. The U.S. intelligence report describes both RT and Sputnik as conducting an “influence campaign” on behalf of the Kremlin that sought to bolster support for then-GOP candidate Donald Trump and sow opposition for the Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.
On Monday, Yahoo News reported that former Sputnik reporter Andrew Feinberg had a lengthy interview with the Justice Department office that handles Foreign Agents Registration Act issues.
Feinberg, who worked at The Hill in 2012, provided law enforcement with a thumb drive of thousands of internal emails and documents he had downloaded from his work computer before he was fired from his reporting job there.
Justice Department officials wanted to know about Sputnik’s “internal structure, editorial processes and funding,” he told Yahoo News.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act is a World War II-era law, enacted to thwart Nazi propaganda from coming into the United States to sway American public sentiment and U.S. policy.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working to update the law and make it much stricter, with several bills in the works.
One, sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), would increase enforcement capabilities for the office that oversees the act, located within DOJ’s National Security Division. The House has companion legislation.
Shaheen on Monday lauded the Justice Department’s efforts to probe into Sputnik’s internal structure.
“I’m very encouraged that the FBI is investigating the Sputnik news agency, which is funded by the Russian government. We can’t allow foreign agents, particularly those working on behalf of our adversaries, to skirt our laws,” Shaheen said in a statement. “Every new revelation about Russia's use of propaganda to influence the 2016 election further highlights the need for the federal government to bolster its enforcement of FARA.”