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Russia's Justice Ministry threatens ‘special restrictions’ on the work of U.S. journalists The infowar heats up, all on the word of Russia Today's chief editor

Source: Meduza
Zurab Dzhavakhadze / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Several media outlets under the umbrella of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty received official notices from the Russian Justice Ministry on October 9, warning that Moscow might restrict their operations. The documents mailed to RFE/RL cited Russia’s mass media law, highlighting a clause about retaliatory measures, in the event that a foreign state infringes on the rights of Russian journalists. Representatives from Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL’s Russian language service) tie the warnings to complaints by RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan, who recently claimed that American officials are threatening to add RT to the U.S. registry of “foreign agents,” though this information remains unverified.

The Justice Ministry warned several media outlets within the RFE/RL broadcasting organization that their work could be limited on Russian soil

The warnings were contained in emails that arrived on October 9, addressed to the independent U.S.-government-funded television network Nastoyashee vremya (Current Time). The document was signed by Vladimir Titov, the director of the Justice Ministry’s department on nonprofit organizations’ affairs. Identical emails were sent to Idel.realii (RFE/RL’s edition targeting Russia’s wider Volga-Ural areas) and Radio Svoboda (Radio Freedom).

RFE/RL's media outlets share a headquarters in Prague. Current Time launched in October 2014 in partnership with Voice of America, another independent U.S.-government-funded media outlet. Since 1991, Radio Freedom has operated a regional bureau in Moscow, which was opened thanks to an executive order by President Boris Yeltsin, citing the radio station’s “role in objectively informing Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic citizens and the world community about the course of domestic processes in Russia.” In the same decree, Yeltsin granted Radio Freedom a building in central Moscow. In 2002, President Putin nullified Yeltsin’s order (but the radio station didn't lose its Moscow bureau).

Clarification: Elena Glushkova, a representative from RFE/RL in Moscow, informed Meduza that the Moscow Mayor's Office “never granted office space” to Radio Svoboda. The news outlet has rented office space in the city on its own since 1992, she said.

In its email to Current Time, the Justice Ministry warned that Russia’s mass media law stipulates “the possibility of imposing restrictions on correspondents working for the media outlets of states that place special restrictions on the professional activities of media outlets registered in the Russian Federation.”

The phrase in the warnings was pulled from Article 55 of the legislation in question, which does not specify what restrictions the government can place on foreign reporters. The Justice Ministry has refused to elaborate on what measures it’s considering. The Russian government has never before used this legal clause to punish foreign journalists.

A few days before the Justice Ministry’s warnings, RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan complained publicly that U.S. officials have ordered her outlet to register as a “foreign agent”

On October 5, testifying before a Federation Council commission on protecting Russian sovereignty and preventing foreign interference in domestic affairs, Margarita Simonyan said that RT had received a letter from the U.S. Justice Department demanding that it register as a “foreign agent” by October 17, 2017. Simonyan says RT’s staff and property could be arrested, if they refuse.

According to Simonyan, if RT registers under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), its employees would be required to publish their personal information, right down to their salaries and home phone numbers, which she says would put them at risk. She is also worried that that U.S. officials will try to force RT to add a special “foreign agent” banner to its broadcasts, and that American cable TV distributors would start to drop the network from their packages.

Anna Belkina, RT’s communications director, clarified to Meduza that the Justice Ministry's letter was addressed to a company “that services the RT America network in the United States” (she refused to name the business). “The letter said that the company is required to register under FARA because of the work it does for RT,” Belkina said, calling the decision “political” and “far from the first attempt to squeeze RT out of the country.”

“For several years, the mainstream media has tried to destroy RT’s reputation, publishing fake stories about us. There’s been a real mudslinging campaign against the people who appear on our network. But this hasn’t worked, either.” Belkina said.

The U.S. Justice Department hasn’t commented officially on the situation, and American officials have refused even to verify that a letter was sent to RT’s “service provider.” Both Simonyan and RT’s press office have declined to produce a copy of the supposed letter, as well. Meduza received no response from the U.S. Justice Department regarding RT and FARA compliance.

The warnings to RFE/RL and Simonyan’s complaint are clearly linked

On October 6, just a day after Simonyan’s remarks to the Federation Council commission, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov weighed in on the situation, assuring RT’s staff that Moscow won’t rule out “reciprocal measures” in the event of “further harassment” and infringements on the Russian media.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova reinforced this message on October 8, warning that American media outlets and reporters in Russia can expect “the same measures” as those used against RT in the United States. Zakharova refused to say, however, exactly what threats RT is facing in the U.S. A day later, RFE/RL got its warning letters from the Russian Justice Ministry.

Speaking to Meduza, Current Time director Daisy Sindelar linked the Justice Ministry's warning letters to the possible registration of RT as a “foreign agent” in the U.S., though she also noted that there’s still no official verification that American officials have demanded this. “For now, [the Russian authorities] haven’t applied any specific restrictions on us, but they’ve threatened to do it. I think this is an important detail. As for the fact that our media outlets are under pressure in Russia, there’s nothing terribly new here. We’ve grown accustomed to working under pressure,” Sindelar said. (In March 2017, for instance, State Duma deputies called for auditing the activities of RFE/RL media outlets, to check their compliance with Russian media laws, repeatedly calling them “elements of Western intervention” in Russian politics.)

No Russian media outlet has ever been forced to register under FARA, so far, and the U.S. law is significantly different from what Russia passed in 2012

American lawmakers adopted FARA in 1938 to combat Nazi and Communist propaganda. In the 1960s, the law was reformed so it could be used to control lobbyists working for foreign states. Since 1995, FARA has identified “political activity” as actions intended to influence any state agency or official or any section of the American public “with reference to formulating, adopting, or changing the domestic or foreign policies of the United States.” Also thanks to reforms passed in 1995, the term “political propaganda” became “informational materials.”

According to an audit carried out by the Justice Department in September 2016, “Congress believed the term ‘propaganda’ to be an unnecessary remnant of the original law and believed the change to ‘informational materials’ reflected the shift in focus to the public disclosure of agents engaged in the U.S. political process.”

The same report also noted that U.S. officials have difficulty determining whether FARA exemptions apply to “certain groups such as think tanks, non-governmental organizations, university and college campus groups, foreign media entities, and grassroots organizations that may receive funding and direction from foreign governments.” “Such organizations may receive funding from foreign governments and subsequently take public political positions that are favorable to those governments,” the report stated, also noting that “these types of organizations generally claim that they act independently of foreign control or are not serving a predominantly foreign interest and are not required to register.”

FARA registration requirements demand that foreign agents submit to the Justice Department “the name, residence addresses, and nationality of each director and officer and of each person performing the functions of a director or officer,” as well as “a comprehensive statement of the nature of registrant's business, a complete list of the registrant's employees, and a statement of the nature of the work of each.”

FARA also requires foreign agents to place in their “informational materials” the following: “a conspicuous statement that the materials are distributed by the agent on behalf of the foreign principal.” The Justice Department’s 2016 report, incidentally, said this clause needs to be updated “to address the Internet and social media,” singling out Twitter, where officials say “registrants find it impractical to include the disclaimer within these types of messages.”

A willful failure to register as an agent under FARA could result in a sentence of up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. That said, a 2014 report by the Project on Government Oversight found that the Justice Department relies on “voluntary compliance” for timely filing and the labeling of informational materials, leading to “rampant rule breaking.”

Today, there are 398 active FARA registrants, three of whom represent foreign principals based in Russia: the Manatos & Manatos government relations and public policy company (representing Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska), and the Sidley Austin corporate law firm and the Endeavor Group consultancy (both of which represent VTB Bank).

Correction: An earlier version of this text incorrectly claimed that there are no media outlets currently registered under FARA. In fact, there are several media outlets registered, including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Korean Broadcasting System, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Japanese broadcaster JNG Shareholders Group, and German Deutsche Telecom. Meduza apologizes for the mistake.

Meanwhile in Russia, President Vladimir Putin signed into law in July 2012 a package of amendments on federal laws regulating the activities of nonprofit organizations performing the functions of a foreign agent. The reforms don’t apply to corporate lobbyists, but they do apply to nonprofit organizations conducting political activity while receiving foreign funding. Since 2014, the Justice Ministry has added 88 organizations to its list of “foreign agents,” including human rights groups, charities, environmentalist organizations, and others, whose work is supported by foreign grants.

Registrants are subjected to “foreign agent” labeling requirements and other auditing regulations, but their staff aren’t forced to disclose any personal data.

Sasha Sulim and Kevin Rothrock

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