Defending Rights & Dissent Statement On Forcing RT America To Register As Foreign Agent

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Disclaimer: our staff has appeared on RT several times as guest commentators.

On Monday, acting under the threat of arrest of their senior editor and the seizure of their bank accounts, RT America registered under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). The DOJ’s demand that RT register as a foreign agent raises serious First Amendment concerns and promotes a narrative that social justice movements in this country are somehow unpatriotic and playing into the hands of the Russians.

Alexandra Ellerbeck of the Committee to Protect Journalists explained in reaction to the move, “We’re uncomfortable with governments deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.” This is particularly concerning, because as Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor-in-chief of The Nation, points out, “In current mainstream American usage, “Russian disinformation” means virtually any and every news story and commentary that deviates from the narrative of the US political establishment.”

While fake news and deliberate disinformation is lamentable, the concern about Russian disinformation has quickly morphed into general attacks on dissent-including opinions that have nothing to do whatsoever with Russia. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence in a report on RT noted the network’s coverage of surveillance, civil liberties, protest movements, the environmental impacts of fracking and “alleged Wall Street greed.” We continuously hear narratives that Russia promoted domestic social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter, in order to sow divisiveness. Using this logic, any criticism of the status quo, any protest against injustice or repression could be argued to aid the Kremlin. This would mean that dissent by its very nature is disloyalty.

RT America does receive funding from the Russian government. However, BBC receives funding from the British government, CBC from the Canadian government, and Al-Jazeera from the Qatari government,. None of these media outlets are forced to register as foreign agents. In fact, they are largely viewed as being in the continuum of legitimate news organizations.

When Saudi Arabia and a number of other states attempted to force Qatar to shutter Al-Jazeera, this move was condemned by international human rights and press freedom groups. When Russia, Israel, and other states have contemplated (or implemented) forcing civil society groups that receive foreign funding to register with the government, these moves were similarly and correctly condemned.

Aaron Maté, writing in The Nation, explained what registering as a foreign agent could mean for RT:

“As a foreign agent, RT says it could be forced to hand over the private data of its employees, disclose any contacts with US officials or media, and file its content with the Justice Department within two days of transmission.”

Regardless of what one thinks of RT America, and people have every right to criticize their coverage, they are a member of the media. Their network features a number of longtime US journalists, including Chris Hedges, Larry King, and Ed Schultz. Their funding structure is not significantly different than a number of other news channels that do not register under FARA. Singling them out is based, in part, on the content. Allowing the government to decide what is and isn’t propaganda is a dangerous step, especially as any dissenting views on any subject are increasingly cited as evidence of Russian subversion.

As we wrote in an earlier statement on the disturbing rhetoric around “Russiagate:”

For those in power it is never the right time for dissent. There are always exigent circumstances that require the imposition of a faux unity, in which those who live with oppression or injustice must remain silent, or else they will be aiding an omnipresent enemy. We know too well that democracy can never be defended by curtailing democracy.

While we understand that many have legitimate concerns about Russian interference in our democratic process and that an impartial, transparent investigation is necessary, we caution people against creating an environment in which the government is given new rationales to target dissent.