Disclaimer: The author of this piece has appeared several times on both Sputnik and Al-Jazeera as a guest commentator.
A group of lawmakers are angry that an Al-Jazeera reporter partook in an undercover investigation of Israel lobbyists. As a result, they are calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to force the network to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Such a move would clearly be a retaliatory act against investigative journalism.
As shocking as this move is, it follows a recent trend. Last November, RT was forced to register as a foreign agent. Defending Rights & Dissent criticized that move as a threat to press freedom. Since then there have been increasing attempts to force news outlets to register under FARA. The Department of Justice has demanded that Sputnik, which like RT receives funding from the Russian government, to register. Members of Congress have been pressuring the Department of Justice to force the Chinese funded news outlet Xinhua to register under FARA. China Daily’s distribution company is already registered under FARA, but there have been calls to amend FARA so that individual journalists with paper would have to register, as well.
FARA makes an exception for news outlets engaged in bona fide news or journalistic activities. As a result, state funded foreign media, such as the BBC, operate in the US without registering as foreign agents. Proponents of RT registering under FARA have argued that RT does not meet the requirements for the exception, as it isn’t sufficiently independent, and others have alleged that Chinese state funded media is engaged in intelligence operations. But this ignores how these calls are politically motivated.
The recent calls for Al-Jazeera to register demonstrate clearly how FARA can be abused for political purposes. Al-Jazeera is slated to release a four-part documentary about pro-Israel lobbyists in the US. One of the issues dealt with is a “covert campaign” against the Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). As part of this investigation, Al-Jazeera used an undercover investigator and hidden cameras. According to Al-Jazeera, it “uncovered evidence, which suggests that this campaign may well involve these groups working with Israel to collect intelligence on and discredit U.S. citizens who support BDS, as well as others who are perceived as challenging Israel.”
It is impossible to separate the targeting of Al-Jazeera from the attacks on RT and Sputnik. Criticisms of RT and Sputnik as being “Russian propaganda” quickly devolved into blatant viewpoint discrimination. An Office of the Director of National Intelligence report on Russian interference in the election featured an annex that singled out RT for giving coverage to the Occupy Wall Street movement, violations of civil liberties, or the environmental impact of fracking. Senator Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) more recent report on Russian attacks on democracy said, “RT and Sputnik target a diverse audience: both far-right and far-left elements of Western societies, environmentalists, civil rights activists, and minorities.”
Proponents of forcing these media outlets to register under FARA claim doing so in no way impairs their ability to gather and disseminate information. But being labeled a foreign agent, as opposed to a bona fide media outlet, has ramifications. As a result of RT being forced to register as a foreign agent, they lost their Capitol Hill press credentials. And they report that staff has been quitting en masse. It is clear that being branded by the government a foreign agent not engaged in bona fide journalism carries serious stigma.
One of the hallmark principles of press freedom is the state cannot retaliate or stifle disfavored points of view. Politically motivated uses of FARA do just that.