The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 has become a hot topic in 2017, with high-profile Washington actors from Paul Manafort to Tony Podesta to Michael Flynn facing accusations they violated the law — a crime that historically has resulted in few prosecutions.
Under intensifying pressure from the Department of Justice, which oversees enforcement of FARA, Russian website and television channel RT America announced it would register as a foreign agent last 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," RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan claimed in a statement. "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."
T&R Productions, described by the Washington Post as "the company that operates RT," filed FARA registrations on Friday which have since been published on the DOJ's website. As the Post reported, T&R's filing said "it had received payments from a foreign principal identified as ANO TV-Novosti, a Russian media company," as seen on page three of this disclosure, and listed Mikhail V. Solodovnikov as the company's sole owner.
As assessment issued by U.S. intelligence agencies in January reportedly described RT America as “a Kremlin-financed channel operated from within the United States" that "has positioned itself as a domestic US channel and has deliberately sought to obscure any legal ties to the Russian government."
“The Kremlin staffs RT and closely supervises RT’s coverage, recruiting people who can convey Russian strategic messaging because of their ideological beliefs,’’ the report said.
To comply with FARA, RT will need 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,” acting Assistant Attorney General Dana Boente emphasized.
Other recent FARA controversies, including those surrounding Manafort, Flynn, and Podesta, have involved lobbying work. In the case of Flynn, the foreign principal in question was Turkey, while Manafort and Podesta were both representing a Brussels-based think tank with close ties to the pro-Russian Party of Regions in Ukraine.
FARA was passed in 1938 to deal with an influx of German propaganda. It does not forbid foreign governments from hiring American entities to influence public opinion or policy, but it subjects any such work to disclosure requirements in order to create transparency about whom those efforts are intended to benefit. "The purpose of FARA," as described by the DOJ, "is to ensure that the U.S. Government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws."
FARA requires "informational materials" disseminated by foreign agents "be labeled with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal." For websites, now apparently set to include RT America's, acceptable disclosures include those where a "conspicuous label" is displayed "visibly on the home page, as a running header or footer on a website home page, or within a website 'About Us' page." The law may have been passed in 1938, but the DOJ today has established guidelines dictating proper social media disclosure for information disseminated by FARA registrants, including "a conspicuous statement on the social media access page of the person’s or organization’s website, within a Facebook or Twitter profile summary, or on the home page for an online forum or blog."
The DOJ's decision to pressure RT into FARA compliance comes as the government continues to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.