The Justice Department has asked a company that supplies services to the US affiliate of the state-owned Russian news outlet Russia Today to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, according to an article published Monday on RT’s website.
“The war the US establishment wages with our journalists is dedicated to all the starry-eyed idealists who still believe in freedom of speech,” RT’s Moscow-based editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said in a statement. “Those who invented it, have buried it.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and it is unclear which company they sent the letter to. RT works with RTTV America and RTTV Studios, both of which are based in Washington, DC, according to an Atlantic Council report published last week.
The news comes on the heels of a Yahoo News report that the FBI is investigating whether Russia’s state-owned Sputnik News — also helmed by Simonyan — is a propaganda arm of the Kremlin and therefore operating in the United States in violation of FARA.
“The DOJ wouldn’t send this letter, particularly to a media outlet, unless they had sufficient intelligence to show that these outlets met the FARA standard — essentially, that they were being directed and controlled by a foreign government,” said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI counterintelligence agent who is now an associate dean at Yale Law School.
“Shedding sunlight on all of their activities is really what neutralizes them,” Rangappa added. “If a foreign intelligence service is trying to disseminate propaganda, it will only work if people don’t know anything about the source of the information. If they’re registered as foreign agents, it’s basically saying they’re not real journalists.”
That, in turn, could ease or remove First Amendment concerns and allow the US government to collect intelligence and “keep tabs on them, in a way,” Rangappa said. “And I think they would do it for these outlets because there is this huge investigation centering around Russia in particular.”
Sputnik’s former White House correspondent, Andrew Feinberg, confirmed to Business Insider on Monday that the FBI interviewed him on September 1 about his brief but eye-opening time at Sputnik, which he outlined in a Politico column late last month.
The FBI is now in possession of thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents that Feinberg downloaded before he left the company and handed over earlier this month, according to Yahoo.
US intelligence agencies that examined Russia’s election interference in 2016 and concluded in a report published in January that RT served as a propaganda arm of the Kremlin and had facilitated a fake news campaign aimed at sowing chaos and discrediting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Sputnik editor-in-chief Mindia Gavasheli said in a statement that he is not surprised that the FBI is investigating Sputnik “since the atmosphere of hysteria in relation to everything that belongs to Russia has been created in the country, and everything with the word ‘Russian’ is seen through the prism of spy mania.”
“We are journalists, and mostly Americans work here,” Gavasheli said. “We believe that any assumption that we are engaged in anything other than journalism is an absolute lie and fabrication.”
Feinberg told Business Insider earlier this year that he couldn’t be sure how much instruction his higher-ups were getting directly from the Kremlin and that it wasn’t obvious whether they supported President Donald Trump over Clinton.
But Sputnik’s slant is no secret, and Feinberg said it wasn’t long before Sputnik asked him to write things that either lacked appropriate context or had a decidedly pro-Russian slant that he argued distorted reality. Indeed, as the Atlantic Council has written, the presidential decree that founded Sputnik’s parent company described the outlet’s purpose as “reporting the state policy of the Russian Federation, and public life in the Russian Federation, abroad.”
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