Sputnik and the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA)

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Earlier this week, Yahoo News reported the FBI is looking into whether Kremlin-funded and directed media agency is operating in the U.S. as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. Ironically, the FBI obtained a cache of internal Sputnik email and documents that will assist the bureau in its investigation. The timing of the investigation coincides with interest by some in Congress to update the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA, to deal with modern operations such as Russia’s Sputnik and RT, the media outlet formerly known as Russia Today.

Over two years ago, May 2015, I wrote about FARA as it related to RT. The article has not aged and applies equally to Sputnik today. I suggest you read it if you haven’t already as it includes the relevant history on the creation, implementation, and evolution of FARA. Today, as it has been for over two decades, the application of FARA to foreign media activities in the U.S. has essentially been neutered as a direct result of watering down the impact of FARA on information created and distributed by the Canadian government in the United States designed to influence public opinion and U.S. policies.

What is not expressly stated in that 2015 article is now equally important to what is in the article. As expected, the Russians are beginning to play the “violation of free press” card in response to the FARA inquiry. The irony is thick considering the danger a news journalist faces operating in Russia, whether working for a domestic news organization not aligned with the Kremlin or with foreign news media. A story this week of another Russian journalist fleeing the country is just one of countless constant threats against reporters, as well as diplomats, by the Kremlin.

But does a finding that FARA applies and the requirement for Sputnik, and RT and other Kremlin media, employees to register as foreign agents impact the Kremlin’s ability to operate in the United States?

The simple answer is, No. Registering under FARA will have no adverse impact on Kremlin media or its employees to work in the United States. Registering with FARA will:

  • Not remove press credentials of Kremlin media employees
  • Not cause the revocation or denial of access to press galleries
  • Not limit or prevent access to continuing or entering into new cable TV distribution contracts or from purchasing or leasing radio stations in the U.S.
  • Not otherwise infringe on the ability to collect and disseminate information within the United States
  • Not subject Sputnik, or RT or similar, to physical or financial abuse or intimidation.

This list is remarkably different than the situation in Russia. Over the past several years, the Kremlin has passed several laws targeting foreign news media and news media that does not tow the party line. These include restrictions on foreign ownership restrictions and the foreign agent label. Perhaps the Kremlin, in alleging infringement on free speech is mirror imaging and confusing the American ‘foreign agent’ law with their own restrictive and highly punitive version.

It is worth noting then that when Putin came to power, VOA was carried by some 30+ radio stations in Russia, including in Moscow. These are voluntary carries as VOA does not charge or pay for air time. Any organization is free to redistribute VOA, and RFE/RL, content at will. Today, there are zero. Each radio was pressured to stop carrying VOA, whether through institutional threats by the fire marshal or more direct threats by withholding or removing broadcast licensing. As a result, foreign access to the Russian media space is heavily limited, and VOA and RFE/RL are only able to get in through the Internet. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has easy access to American cable networks and may even lease a radio station in America’s capital.

In my 2015 article, I cautioned against designating RT as a foreign agent because the U.S., with incapacitated capability in public diplomacy and public communication in general, would suffer more than it gained. Then, few understood or heard of RT or Sputnik, and fewer still understood the potentially negative impact of the organizations. Not that the audiences of either have grown appreciably, or that these audiences were ever significant, but there is a ripple, or echo, effect of these organizations seen in social media, generally as a result of other fringe and opportunistic information media outlets. The chance the public might buy the Kremlin’s argument that the U.S. Government was trying to suppress free speech might win out if the government was unable to articulate its rationale, a failure in communication the government repeatedly demonstrated across most policy areas.

Today is different. There is now broad awareness of the deleterious effect of Sputnik and RT as discussions about Fake News, Troll Farms, manipulation of FaceBook ads and events, that will restrict any public relations effect by the Kremlin to its core audience. This audience will likely see the application of the foreign agent label on Sputnik, and RT, as “proof” that Sputnik is indeed Telling the Untold, which is Sputnik’s motto and fitting since the “untold” is the untrue.

It is long past time that the Department of Justice directs the Kremlin’s media to register as foreign agents under FARA. It is also time for the Congress to update and re-empower FARA for the issues we face today.