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Why did the US force Russia Today to register as a foreign agent?

It seems like the US government are shooting themselves in the foot — this gives Russia an excellent excuse to force Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to register as a foreign agent, which can hardly surprise the US. One is a Russian government funded news outlet operating in the US (and elsewhere), the other is a US government funded news outlet operating in Russia (and elsewhere). It's very easy for Russian propaganda to declare the two equivalent, no matter whether or not this is accurate when one looks at the detail.

What does the US gain by forcing RT to register as a foreign agent?

  • There was no law or court ruling that singled them out. They had the choice to register under FARA, or to oppose such through litigation. They opted to register. I'm not sure if that constitutes "forced", and think this is a loaded question, though I'll note that I've seen articles on the BBC and such that have also used the word "forced". Also, this is two questions, not one. – zibadawa timmy Nov 17 '17 at 2:11
  • This is a question on politics.SE. So the political answer is "because it looked good to their voters", as inane as that sounds. – user4012 Nov 17 '17 at 2:35
  • @zibadawatimmy I did not intend to ask a loaded question. Please correct me if I have been misinformed! – gerrit Nov 17 '17 at 3:03
  • How else could one disclose any organization as foreign agent if not by transparent disclosure of its finances? Why then promote transparency only for media organizations that are generally perceived as foreign? – Communisty Nov 17 '17 at 12:26
  • When you say 'US', are you referring to the average person, our news companies, our politicians? The impact of this will differ based on who you're actually talking about. It's rare that the desires of any of those groups aligns well. – Jack Of All Trades 234 Nov 17 '17 at 19:07
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It had to register as a foreign agent because it is a foreign agent. The US classifies RT as "Russia’s state-run propaganda machine" and says that it interfered in the presidential election.

The BBC covered this and other questions about RT:

The US government requires all agencies, individuals and organisations controlled or funded by international governments and undertake political activity, to be registered with the justice department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara).

The benefit is that RT will now be required to disclose financial information regarding their funding as well as report any activity meant to influence US politics. They will also have to indicate that they are registered as a foreign agent in their publications, which might help in curtailing some of the propaganda.

Apart from the possible benefits, the law requires the registration, because the US determined that RT "conducts strategic messaging for [the] Russian government" and "seeks to influence politics, [and] fuel discontent in the U.S". The DoJ says that it "is committed to enforcing FARA and expects compliance with the law". Even if it has negative consequences as described by OP, in a democracy, the law should not be ignored out of political convenience.

  • Your linked Reuters article states FARA was made in 1938, thus enforcing the law now must have another agenda than just the existence of the law. – Communisty Nov 17 '17 at 12:18
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    @Communisty I'm not sure how the age of the law is relevant. Many laws are old but still enforced (the law against murder for example). If you mean why RT wasn't compelled to comply with the law before now, the report about political interference which is the basis for the DoJ insistence on registration is from January, and a process like this takes some time. From the Reuters article: "After that report, the Department of Justice insisted that RT America comply with registration requirements". – tim Nov 17 '17 at 12:36
  • Could you clarify, is this a decision by the legislative, the executive, or the judiciary? Reports made it appear like a political decision, but as I understand it now it's rather the executive which determined FARA applies for RT activities, a decision against which RT could but chose not to appeal in court? – gerrit Nov 17 '17 at 12:48
  • @gerrit Yes, it is also my understanding that the DoJ asked them to register, and they did. The alternative would have been to go to court over this, but RT decided against that. – tim Nov 17 '17 at 13:23
  • Are the BBC, Al-Jazeera, and Deutsche Welle also required to register as foreign agents in the US? – ebhh2001 Apr 1 '18 at 17:33
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There are reporting requirements in the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Wikipedia describes them as

The Act requires periodic disclosure of all activities and finances by:

  • people and organizations that are under control of
    • a foreign government, or
    • of organizations or of persons outside of the United States ("foreign principal"),
  • if they act "at the order, request, or under the direction or control" (i.e. as "agents")
    • of this principal or
    • of persons who are "controlled or subsidized in major part" by this principal.

There are exceptions for press organizations that are not operated by the foreign government, but apparently they decided that those do not apply to Russia Today. As already noted, they have the same requirement for China Daily.

At a guess, they found that Russia Today was operating Facebook pages that encouraged support for one of the anti-Clinton candidates in the presidential election: Bernie Sanders; Jill Stein; Donald Trump. Or possibly support for or opposition to an organization like Black Lives Matter.

It is worth noting that it is illegal for foreign agents to engage in electioneering activities in United States elections. Such activities include donating to candidates or endorsing candidates in US media. Presumably this registration will make it easier to track and stop such activities in future elections.

When I initially saw this question, I thought that this might be it, but I didn't know the location of the relevant law. Thanks to all who mentioned FARA, so I could look it up. I do not know the details of how foreign agents are tracked. Perhaps someone else can contribute more. E.g. does this make it easier to compel Facebook to turn over information about Russia Today's activities on their site?

  • I'm not sure why this answer has been downvoted. It may not be complete (looking further into the precise requirements for press organizations and why they do not apply to RT might be useful), but overall referring to Foreign Agents Registration Act and its definition of "foreign agent" is helpful. – Evargalo Nov 17 '17 at 9:45
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Protecting the US audience

  1. To demonstrate the US government's strong confidence with the US intelligence reports about an evil role of the Russian propaganda and to show its commitment to put all the necessary efforts to prevent such actions in the future;
  2. To convince the US citizens that the Russian propaganda advertises anti-American ideas and concepts, undermines the key concepts of the US democracy;
  3. To make it impossible for Russian propaganda agencies act as financial proxies;

This article sums it up in three paragraphs — Reuters (highlight mine):

U.S. intelligence agencies said in a report in January that the television station, which broadcasts on cable in the United States, is “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” and that it contributed to the Kremlin’s campaign to interfere with last year’s presidential election in favor of Republican Party candidate Donald Trump.

After that report, the Department of Justice insisted that RT America comply with registration requirements under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). Under the act, RT will be required to disclose financial information.

“Americans have a right to know who is acting in the United States to influence the U.S. government or public on behalf of foreign principals,” said acting Assistant Attorney General Dana Boente.


Losing influence on Russian audience

this gives Russia an excellent excuse to force Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to register as a foreign agent

The alleged brainwashing of a US citizen by "Russia Today" and the alleged brainwashing of a Russian citizen by RFE/RL, VoA, CNN, and Fox News are simply two different things:

An average US citizen influences the US policy. By voting on real elections, enjoying free speech, and finally, being able to make pressure on their Senator and convince other US citizens.

Also, it can be unclear for them that there exist mass media created solely for propaganda purposes, in each and every program, including "weather reports" talking about perfect weather conditions for airstrikes. A naive person watches it and starts believing the lies ("can't they, finally, push propaganda in each and every word? there's no smoke without fire, so they must be right at least partially!")

Hence, spoiling an US citizen's opinion with an foreign propaganda may have big effect.

An average Russian citizen, on the contrary, knows for sure that the US and "Gayrope" want to conquer Russia and take all its natural resources.

Also, they in no way participate in their government's policy (1).

Even, the very word "a Liberal" is almost a pejorative in modern Russian language.

So, telling an average Russian citizen that "Radio Liberty" is a bad, bad, bad enemy agent would arguably have low effect, if any (2).


Also, an accusation of unfair oppression would be countered with a simple argument: other countries' official media already register under FARA:

"Foreign government-owned news organizations, including China Daily, the English-language newspaper owned by China’s government, register under FARA. The law applies to companies that are owned or controlled by foreign governments." — (same source)

OTOH, allegations of selective enforcement have also been reported.


  • (1) According to the recent (Nov '17) public survey that was conducted by a Russian center "Levada Center", to the question, "To what extent do you think you can impact to what's going on in the country?", 68% answered Not At All, 21% answered Not Really, and only 3% and 2% answered Somewhat and Completely — Link, in Russian
  • (2) The same "Levada Center" in has conducted a survey (Mar '17) just after the Russian government's adoption of their own law regarding “foreign agents”.
    Question, "In your opinion, can an organization which receives money from abroad remain independent, or will they primarily serve the interests of their foreign sponsors?", 66% respondents answered, "Will serve the interests of foreign sponsors" — Link, in English.
    The same survey, question: "With what do you primarily associate the expression “foreign agent”?, 45% answered "Spy, recruiter, foreign intelligence, double agent, infiltrator, recruited".
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    There's a lot of bias (or bias-supporting language) in this answer, making it difficult to discern what information it presents is actually valid and objective. There's a number of straight up unsourced claims (define "average Russian", for example, and validate the opinions you attribute to them), as well. – zibadawa timmy Nov 17 '17 at 6:02
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    Is “evil” being used sarcastically or seriously? – Andrew Grimm Nov 17 '17 at 8:07
  • @zibadawatimmy, thanks for noticing. I have added links to a reputable Russian survey center. – bytebuster Nov 18 '17 at 4:03
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This is a political move. You don't have to be fair in politics.

Officially from the (official) US point of view, it is to protect American citizens from fake news.

If the Russians do the same in retribution, it will be because they "fear the Truth".

In pragmatic terms, RT registered because they were already considered as a foreign agent. So it was useless to lose money in a trial.

But whatever you think about RT, yes this is a stupid move from the US. The more they will try to forbid RT, the more RT will be read or watched. I guess History is lost on some people...

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    Is this answer only stating an opinion ? – Evargalo Nov 17 '17 at 10:48
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    @Evergalo It is, yes, but unless some member of the US government is an active user here on SE Politics, that's the only you can get in this kind of questions. Tim's answer has a better exposition and a couple of links, but it's as opinated as this one. – Rekesoft Nov 17 '17 at 13:02

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