Russia designates U.S. media 'foreign agents' in tit-for-tat restrictions

The Russian government designated two U.S. media groups and seven of their affiliates as “foreign agents”, in a tit-for-tat response to the U.S. Department of Justice placing similar limitations on two Kremlin-backed organisations.

Russia’s Ministry of Justice placed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America on a list of “foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent” on December 5.

Russia has not yet made clear what the listing means, but on December 6 its parliament voted to bar reporters from the outlets from accessing its buildings.

In an emailed response to a query from WikiTribune, Nasserie Carew of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that runs the two outlets, said they will continue as normal for now.

“While the Russian government has indicated that the new designation will come with additional limitations on our work in Russia, the nature of these limitations is unknown at this time,” said Carew.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors “remains committed to continuing our journalistic work, and our mission of informing, engaging, and connecting people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” Carew said.

In September, the U.S. Department of Justice placed two Russian government-backed media outlets, RT and Reston Translater, a U.S. radio broadcasting partner of Sputnik News, on a list of “foreign agents” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

FARA dates back to 1938, when it was introduced as a tool to combat foreign propaganda. According to the BBC, all of RT and Reston Translator’s U.S. content will now need to be labelled as “on behalf of the Russian government.”

RT  said it will challenge the listing, and its editor Margarita Simonyan sarcastically applauded America’s concept of free speech.

In response to the Department of Justice’s requirement, Alexandra Ellerbeck of press freedom group the CPJ, said in a statement, that it changed how U.S. press regulation has been applied in recent years, so it is unclear how it will affect media freedom.

“We’re uncomfortable with governments deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda,” she said.

On November 25, the Russian government responded by passing its own “foreign agents” law for media.

Who are the news outlets and how do they compare?

The U.S. imposed registration requirements on RT and Sputnik News. Russia’s response affects RFE/RL, Voice of America, and seven more targeted affiliates of those two outlets.

  • RT (formerly Russia Today, founded in 2005) is a TV channel (also online) that is funded by the Russian government (funding discussed in a report by the EU Commission).
    • The channel has been accused of pro-Kremlin bias (discussed by journalist Julia Ioffe in the Colombia Journalism Review).
    • In 2014, and again in 2015, UK media regulator Ofcom found that RT’s coverage of the war in Ukraine had breached impartiality rules.
    • RT was accused of playing a key part in the Kremlin’s attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election, in a report by the U.S. Department for National Intelligence released in January.
  • Sputnik News is web-focused, though also has a radio broadcast. It was founded in 2014 and is owned by the Russian government. It replaced the international offering from Russia’s state media RIA Novosti, which closed in 2013, and radio service Voice of Russia, which closed in 2014.
    • It has been labelled a propaganda tool and accused of spreading misinformation by opponents including Nato.
    • It often produces viral content, including false stories about U.S. politics (Snopes) and Russian history (Daily Beast).
  • Voice of America is the U.S.’s largest external broadcaster, producing TV, radio and online content in 40 languages, according to its website. It began broadcasting in 1942 to combat anti-U.S. war propaganda, and its charter was formally signed in 1976.
    • Voice of America receives all of its funding from Congress, via the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a federal agency.
    • It has received criticism for giving airtime to controversial figures, including militant leaders (Swissinfo). Its coverage of President Donald J. Trump raised concerns (Politico) with criticism that he was trying to politicize the organisation.
    • In 2013, a U.S. domestic restriction on government propaganda expired, meaning Voice of America became available at home. Critics voiced concerns (Buzzfeed) that U.S. citizens would be subject to tax-funded government propaganda.
  • Radio Free Europe was founded by the U.S. government in 1950 to combat Communist propaganda in the Soviet Union. Radio Liberty was founded in 1953 for the same purpose in the Middle East and other parts of Europe and Asia. They merged in 1975 and RFE/RL now broadcast in 25 languages on radio and online, according to its website.
    • RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. federal government. It received funding from the CIA until 1975 and since then has been funded via Congress.
  • The seven additional news services listed by Russia’s Justice Ministry include outlets targeted at regions of Russia, such as Siberia, and areas under Russia’ sphere of influence. One is a fact-checking site focusing on the Crimean peninsula.

Arch Puddington, a scholar at U.S.-based NGO Freedom House (which receives funding from the U.S. government) told WikiTribune, that RFE/RL and Voice of America “cannot legitimately be compared to RT or Sputnik.”

Puddington said that though they are funded by Congress, they cover the United States, “warts and all, in an even-handed way.”

“If there is a bias, it is one that favors democratic standards and human rights over dictatorship and unaccountable government,” he said.

Puddington said that Russia would like its propaganda tools to be seen as the equivalent of the U.S. news channels it restricted.

“This is an entirely new front in the war of ideas,” he said.

“It should be the job of our political leaders, from the president on down, to remind Americans and the rest of the world that there is a real difference between propaganda and news, and that the difference is fundamental to the difference between dictatorship and democracy,” Puddington said.


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