A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin says inquiries by the Justice Department into Russia-funded news outlets show that U.S. press freedom is in decline.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to a reported investigation into the Sputnik news outlet. A fired White House correspondent says he gave the FBI thousands of internal emails showing it's illegally operating as an unregistered propagandist.
A second Russia-funded outlet, Russia Today, said this week the Justice Department told an associated company to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which Sputnik is under investigation for violating.
"We don't have detailed information, but in any case questionings of journalists or ex-journalists, but in connection with their journalist activity, clearly don't speak well for pluralism of opinions and freedom of the media," Peskov said. "They rather suggest that serious problems are emerging with censorship and restriction of the field for media work."
Russia has a poor reputation for respecting political free expression, but Peskov said the Justice Department's actions contrast with Russia's treatment of the press.
"No censorship is allowed" in Russia, he said, news agency TASS reports, and "foreign media outlets are absolutely equalized in their rights with our domestic media outlets."
Peskov did not mention that Russia has a 2012 law similar to FARA requiring civil organizations, reportedly including groups advocating for reporters and press freedom, to register as foreign agents if they receive funding overseas.
In the U.S., news organizations generally are exempt from registering as foreign agents under FARA. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday he believes the Justice Department acquired new evidence the RT affiliated company was directly controlled from Russia, a key factor in whether an organization must register.
Violators of FARA face possible criminal prosecution if they don't register. But registrants can continue operating, albeit with forced public disclosure of funding and editorial structure, and with disclaimers on published reports.
Some press freedom advocates expressed alarm at the possible effects of going after Russia-funded outlets in the U.S., pointing to the potential for overseas retribution against American-funded outlets like Voice of America, and warning FARA investigations into news outlets could set a troubling precedent domestically, given the large number of U.S. outlets funded by foreign governments or owned by billionaires with overseas connections.
If Russia-funded outlets register under FARA, they would regularly disclose their funding and expenses, as well as the identity of some employees. Some editors and possibly reporters would have to file forms with the Justice Department identifying themselves, and published reports would have to carry a two-sentence disclaimer labeling itself propaganda. Copies of articles and broadcasts would have to be sent to the Justice Department.
Critics of the Russia-funded news outlets see them as propaganda, and a January U.S. intelligence community report claimed RT and Sputnik were part of a Kremlin propaganda effort during the 2016 election that cast President Trump in a sympathetic light.
The precise degree of control from Moscow over the two outlets is debated. One former Sputnik writer told the Washington Examiner this week their editor was a Hillary Clinton supporter and that she was barred from accepting leaked Democratic emails during the election.