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Russian state-funded TV network ‘RT’ says it will register as a foreign agent in the U.S.

Zurab Dzhavakhadze / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan announced on Thursday that her television network has decided to register in the United States as a foreign agent, in accordance with the Justice Department’s demands. “The American Justice Department has left us no choice: the lawyers say the company’s management in America could be arrested and its bank accounts could be seized, if we don’t register as a foreign agent. The company simply would be unable to function in this situation,” Simonyan explained, saying the U.S. government’s demands are “discriminatory” and contrary to the “principles of democracy and free speech.” She says the requirement to register under FARA puts RT at a disadvantage, compared to other foreign TV networks operating in the United States. Simonyan has also vowed to challenge the Justice Department in court.

Commenting on the news, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told the news agency Interfax that the Russian government will begin implementing “retaliatory measures” next week. On November 9, Russia’s federal censor, Roskomnadzor, announced that it has drafted proposals on retaliatory measures that would establish “a special procedure” for “suspending and terminating the activities” of foreign media outlets. Roskomnadzor says it’s also designed an extrajudicial system for blocking the websites of organizations labeled “undesirable” by the Justice Ministry.

American lawmakers adopted the Foreign Agents Registration Act (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.”

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.”

Organizations registered under FARA are permitted to continue publishing and broadcasting. Foreign government-funded media outlets like Japan’s NHK and China’s The China Daily, for example, are both registered foreign agents that still operate in the United States.

Margarita Simonyan first announced in October that U.S. officials were demanding that RT register under FARA. The U.S. Justice Department, however, has refused to comment on the issue.

In response to the FARA registration pressure against RT, Russian officials have threatened to take more serious actions against American media publications like CNN and the independent government-funded outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In January 2017, U.S. government officials released a declassified intelligence report on Russian interference in American domestic politics. More than a quarter of that report consisted of an annex detailing the supposedly colossal significance of the RT (Russia Today) television network. Ten months later, on the basis of this report, Twitter banned advertising on its network by RT, citing its role in the “state-sponsored Russian efforts to interfere with and disrupt the 2016 presidential election.”