RT bucks DOJ request to register as a foreign agent

The Russian television network RT is resisting the U.S. government's request that its American arm register under the...

Posted: Dec 9, 2017 4:37 AM
Updated: Dec 9, 2017 4:37 AM

The Russian television network RT is resisting the U.S. government's request that its American arm register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

According to the network, the Department of Justice gave it an Oct. 17 deadline to register as a foreign agent. But according to publicly available DOJ filings, RT has not yet registered, and in a statement RT said it plans to fight back.

"Our legal team has been doing everything possible for RT to avoid having to register under FARA and the dialogue is ongoing. On their advice we are not discussing further details at this time," RT head of communications Anna Belkina said in a statement.

Though FARA experts say DOJ deadlines for FARA registrations are unusual, they can happen in instances where the DOJ does not feel that they will get voluntary compliance.

"The department takes a much more aggressive stance when they think voluntary compliance will not happen," said FARA expert Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a member of the law firm Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock.

FARA was originally created decades ago to prevent foreign propaganda swaying the American public. Companies or individuals considered to be working on behalf of a foreign government in the United States are required to disclose their funding and relationship with a foreign government or actor with the DOJ, which then publishes the information online. Registering under FARA does not prohibit a news outlet from operating and publishing. Other American-based companies that work with foreign media outlets, such as Japanese broadcaster NHK and Chinese newspaper The China Daily, are also registered under FARA, and those outlets continue their work.

RT did not respond to requests to share a copy of the letter it says it received from the DOJ in order to verify that the DOJ was demanding it register by a certain deadline. The DOJ has repeatedly declined to comment on the FARA request. Spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle told CNN in an email, "Our policy is not to comment on what entities may or may not be required to register under FARA."

There's no clear path to what happens next, FARA experts said. It's possible that the DOJ will just ask RT to register again, continuing the dialogue. It's also possible that it will start civil or criminal proceedings. In the meantime, RT could try to file an injunction to stop the government from forcing its hand.

FARA convictions are rare. According to the DOJ, there have only been seven FARA-related criminal cases in the past 50 years.

RT America was singled out in a January intelligence community report for the impact it may have had on the 2016 election. The report said RT "conducts strategic messaging for [the] Russian government" and "seeks to influence politics, [and] fuel discontent in the U.S." The report also mentioned Russian-government controlled website Sputnik as "another government-funded outlet producing pro-Kremlin radio and online content."

Federal investigators are also reportedly looking into whether Russian government-funded outlets such as RT and Sputnik were part of Russia's influence campaign aimed at the 2016 presidential election. Yahoo News has separately reported that the FBI interviewed a former Sputnik correspondent about his work at the website.

RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan claimed on a Russian talk show last month that the company's lawyers have said that its staff could be at risk of arrest if it did not register. That is technically possible, Rosenstein said, but unlikely.

"If you look at when they've done actual prosecution it tends to be very high-profile cases involving enemy regimes or foreign governments that are not particularly friendly in the U.S.," Rosenstein said. "With all the news around Russia it's not surprising this would've been the time this would come to light."

Daniel Pickard, a lawyer who specializes in FARA as a partner at the law firm Wiley Rein, noted that there can be criminal penalties for violations of FARA. Pickard indicated that he did not have any specific information in regard to the RT issue, but stated that people working for a foreign government that "intentionally and willfully" violates any provisions of the Act can be punished with fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment for no more than five years, or both.

Pickard also indicated that persons who willfully make false statements or intentionally fail to provide material information in regard to registering under FARA can be subject to these same penalties. He indicated, however, that in most cases the Department of Justice has determined that an agent's failure to comply with FARA requirements is unintentional, and has permitted voluntary compliance rather than instituting criminal proceedings.

RT and Russia's leaders have blasted what they said is increased pressure on their outlets, claiming it flies in the face of U.S. values and promising retaliatory actions against American media in Russia. Last month several American government-backed media outlets in the country received letters from the Russian Justice Ministry warning that they were subject to certain restrictions.

On Wednesday, the independent Russian media outlet RBC reported that the Russian parliament's committee on state sovereignty is considering blacklisting at least five U.S.-based media organizations which it claims "interfere in Russia's domestic policy," including CNN and the American government funded Radio Liberty and Voice of America.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia will act in a "tit-for-tat" way if any pressure is placed on the Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik in the United States.

Putin said Russia would react "quite fast" if it sees any action limiting their activities. Putin also aimed criticism at British and American media outlets. He suggested that they "directly influence domestic political processes in almost all countries."

Last week Belkina said RT was changing some billboards and bus shelter advertisements in the United States on the advice of its lawyers because the ads made tongue-in-cheek reference to U.S. intelligence reports and comments by Hillary Clinton suggesting RT tried to influence the election.

"Stuck in traffic? Lost an election? Blame it on us!" one of the ads read.

According to spokespeople for the D.C. Department of Transportation and for Clear Channel, which administers the advertisements, RT purchased 50 bus shelter ads in the Washington area for about a one-month period. Blue Line Media, which helps companies buy bus shelter ads, says rates for those ads in Washington cost between $2,000 to $3,500 for a 4-week period, which would suggest that RT paid between $100,000 to $175,000 for the ads, though often companies receive discounts based off of volume and other factors.

-- CNN's Mary Ilyushina and Laura Jarrett contributed reporting.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Japanese broadcaster NHK is funded by the Japanese government. NHK is a public broadcaster funded by fees received from viewers. Additionally, NHK itself is not registered under FARA; a U.S.-based company with links to NHK, NHK Cosmomedia America, Inc., is.

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