Russia says it will retaliate after RT was 'forced' to register as a foreign agent

Washington Post

Russia plans new measures to restrict U.S. media working here after a Russian English-language TV channel said it was pressured into registering as a foreign agent in the United States, a senior legislator said Friday.

State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said lawmakers will take up changes to the Russian law on foreign agents to extend it to the media. Until now, that law has been applied to just nongovernmental organizations that receive financing from abroad, and engage in what the government determines "political activity." The law has been criticized as a way for the Russian government to marginalize civil society institutions.

U.S. intelligence agencies said in January that RT and the news agency Sputnik, along with a network of "quasi-government trolls," interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on behalf of the Russian government by pushing anti-American propaganda, claims that RT denies.

Volodin's address to the Duma signaled that the Russian government now plans to treat U.S. media in Russia as agents of the United States seeking to meddle in Russian affairs.

The Duma is obliged to give its laws two preliminary approvals before passing them, which Volodin said could happen next week. After that, the law would move to Russia's upper house, which supported retaliating to the restrictions on RT at a hearing yesterday

"All actions of American media outlets indicate that their policy and positions are totally unfriendly and that this interference is absolutely undisguised," Volodin said. "Since such decisions are being made on U.S. territory in relation to our TV channels, it will be right for us to respond to these actions."

The current Russian law does not restrict activity, but requires organizations to place the "foreign agent" label on all their documents.

It was not clear how this label would apply to U.S. media and how it would potentially affect their work, or how many media outlets would be affected.

Pyotr Tolstoy, a deputy speaker of the State Duma, suggested that one possibility is that media outlets affected by the new law could be required to include a statement identifying themselves as foreign agents on their social media pages.

RT's registration as a foreign agent follows a months-long back-and-forth with the Justice Department over whether it was required by U.S. law to register as an agent of the Russian government.

"The American Justice Department has left us with no choice,'' RT's editor in chief Margarita Simonyan said in a statement posted on the organization's website Thursday. "Our lawyers say that if we don't register as a foreign agent, the director of our company in America could be arrested, and the accounts of the company could be seized. In short, in this situation the company would not be able to work. Between those consequences and registering as a foreign agent, we are forced to choose registration.''

She added: "We will continue to work and continue to fight this as long as it's possible.''

RT, previously known as Russia Today, disputes that it is an agent of the Kremlin, arguing that it merely offers alternatives to mainstream news coverage.

"Reciprocal measures will be put in place to ensure the same restrictions as the Americans are now trying to impose on Russian media outlets," Tolstoy said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled that he would sign such a law last month, when he told a conference of foreign policy scholars that Russia would respond immediately and reciprocally to "any efforts to limit our mass media."

Russian news media reported in October that the upper house of the Russian parliament had drawn up a blacklist of at least five U.S. media outlets whose activities in Russia could be restricted in response.

Earlier this month, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said Moscow was preparing "a surprise" in response to pressure on Russian media outlets in the United States. Asked by a Russian television talk show host Thursday whether "The Washington Post and the New York Times should pack their suitcases," she said "Hold on, not all at once, we'll unpack our surprise bit by bit."

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment to The Post on Thursday.

U.S. intelligence agencies in January described RT America TV as "a Kremlin-financed channel operated from within the United States, (which) has substantially expanded its repertoire of programming that highlights criticism of alleged U.S. shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties.''

The assessment also said RT America "has positioned itself as a domestic U.S. channel and has deliberately sought to obscure any legal ties to the Russian government,'' but behind the scenes, "the Kremlin staffs RT and closely supervises RT's coverage, recruiting people who can convey Russian strategic messaging because of their ideological beliefs.''

The Russian law on foreign agents in recent years has been used on nongovernmental groups that do not toe the Kremlin party line. Memorial, one of Russia's oldest human rights groups, which has for three decades sought to expose Soviet mass killings and arrests, and the Levada Center, an independent polling agency, were registered as foreign agents by Russia's Ministry of Justice. The organizations have disputed the decision.

The Washington Post's Devlin Barrett contributed to this report from Washington.

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