RT as a Foreign Agent: Political Propaganda in a Globalized World

May 4, 2015

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In July 1941, the Nazi news agency Transocean, was convicted for failing to register as an agent of a foreign government. Transocean’s top leadership escaped trial through a diplomatic exchange for two newspapermen jailed in Germany. In unrelated cases, Friedrich Ernst Auhagen and George Sylvester Viereck were charged under the same law, with Auhagen convicted two weeks before Transocean and Viereck the following March. The crime for all of these was not their association with Nazi Germany, or even the political material they were disseminating, but rather their failure to register as paid agents working on behalf of a foreign government, a requirement of the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) of 1938. Had they registered, they likely would have continued with their activities unmolested until Hitler declared war on the United States in the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Recently, a member of Russia’s Duma suggested that a Kremlin organization operating in the United States be designated as a lobbyist under the same law. Ilya Ponomarev, currently in exile in California due to his opposition to the invasion of Crimea, said that calling RT, formerly known as Russia Today, a news media organization was wrong. “I think it’s a lobbying tool,” he told Buzzfeed, “and it should be regulated as a lobbyist rather than media.”

In response to Ponomarev’s allegations, Edward Delman looked at this idea in The Atlantic. Delman suggested that Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) are some kind of analogues to RT. This could not be further from the truth. The only attributes shared by VOA and RFE/RL and RT are government funding and work in the international sphere. VOA and RFE/RL, like their sister networks under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which I am a member of, provide a platform for the discussion of multiple points of view. They offer the freedom to speak, to listen, and to know the truth. They empower critical thinkers through news and information programs based on professional journalism and information freedom programs that enable people to capture and share events and what they are thinking. While the BBG is an important part of U.S. foreign policy — working closely with the State Department and other parts of the U.S. government — the journalists and their work are intentionally insulated against political pressures. Think of it like a fire hose: The foreign policy bureaucrats select the audience and the BBG opens the valve to unleash uncensored journalism.

RT was launched as a classic public diplomacy operation in 2005, rather than the vitriolic propaganda outlet that it is today. But it turned out they could not find a large enough audience and, as Russian politics turned back to more brazen autocracy, reverted to Soviet-style propaganda. Except this time, the Kremlin would not be constrained by the Soviet practice of having at least a kernel of truth in their propaganda.

For the most part, there is little real focus at RT on interpreting Russian policies or activities. RT is not about Russia as much as it is about everyone else. Their slogan “Question More” is not about finding answers, but fomenting confusion, chaos, and distrust. They spin up their audience to chase myths, believe in fantasies, and listening to faux — or manufactured when convenient — “experts” until the audience simply tunes out or buys whatever RT serves up. Media illiteracy is the fertile soil on which RT thrives and that it in turn enriches. The differences between the VOA and RFE/RL news organizations and the RT operation are stark.

Ponomarev suggested that in the United States RT “should be regulated as a lobbyist,” but is it a lobbyist? Because FARA applies to the agent and the intent, rather than the specific activity, it does not define the term. So we turn to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which defines a lobbyist as a person or organization “who is engaged for pay for the principle purpose” of influencing legislation in Congress. It seems clear that while RT is attempting to influence public opinion in the U.S., it is not actively seeking specific legislative changes, not even regarding the Magnitsky Act. So it seems the label “lobbyist” doesn’t apply.

Is RT a foreign agent? Prior to 1995, a foreign agent was a person or organization working for a foreign government for the “dissemination of political propaganda” and other activities the agent “believes will, or which he intends to, prevail upon, indoctrinate, convert, induce, persuade, or in any other way influence” U.S. foreign policies and domestic affairs. In 1995, this was simplified to influencing the U.S. government or “any section of the public within the United States to affect domestic or foreign policies.” The term “political propaganda” became “informational materials.” These changes, by the way, were Congress’s response to a 1987 Supreme Court decision that upheld the FARA requirement to label three films by the Canadian government (one on nuclear war and two on acid rain) as “political propaganda.”

RT is squarely within the parameters of the definition of a foreign agent — and the intent of the legislation — by distributing informational materials on behalf of a foreign government. This is not about silencing speech. Even the Nazis weren’t convicted on the basis of their message, but the lack of transparency of ownership, direction, and purpose. Call it truth in advertising.

However, the sensible time to register RT as a foreign agent may have passed. The Kremlin propaganda machine would kick into high gear if RT received a notice to register from the Justice Department or an indictment for failing to register, like Transocean in 1941. While the requirement here is simple registration, in Russia, “foreign agent” is invoked to shutdown groups that are not in lock step with the Kremlin’s narratives, regardless of whether or not foreign support is involved. The hypocrisy of the Kremlin’s elimination of outside media from Russia through new ownership laws, intimidating affiliates from rebroadcasting foreign content, and denying access to cable and satellite providers would be lost on RT’s audience, if they heard it at all. These details, and the striking similarities between the Kremlin’s treatment of news media today and the treatment by past fascists, would certainly be ignored by RT and other Kremlin organizations and paid pundits. So, even the label of “foreign agent” is not a shared attribute: While the Kremlin holds VOA, RFE/RL, CNN, Disney, the BBC, and so on as foreign agents, the United States has not reciprocated.

These issues may seem like semantics, but details matter. If we are to respond to the Kremlin’s subversion — and RT is a tool of subversion both in the United States and elsewhere — then we must understand the tactics, the issues, and U.S. policy options. The people of the United States and U.S. companies can demand reciprocity in market access, and highlight Kremlin hypocrisy as the Russians falsely pontificate about this freedom or that. But the U.S. government cannot do much more than demand openness because shutting down RT undermines our high ground of promoting the freedom of speech, not to mention that such a move isn’t — and should not be — legal in America. In the end, it is the responsibility of the private media to seek the truth, debunk the lies, hold the Kremlin accountable for statements and actions, and, equally important, hold all media accountable. There are bigger media ethics stories than the Brian Williams scandal, and this is one of them.


Matt Armstrong is an author and lecturer on public diplomacy and international media. He serves as a Governor on the Broadcasting Board of Governors since August 2013 and chairs a special Board committee examining the purpose and future of VOA. Find him at MountainRunner.us and on Twitter @MountainRunner. The views here are his own and are not an official representation of the BBG.

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23 thoughts on “RT as a Foreign Agent: Political Propaganda in a Globalized World

  1. Sour grapes. RT is enjoying success here because it is a good counterweight to the propaganda handed out by our own monopolistic media. More truth in RT than NYT.

    1. You are either extremely gullible, poorly educated, or both.

      RT is nothing more than a propaganda tool for the Russian government. It publishes ridiculous lies on just about everything.

  2. RT reporters criticize the Russian government, nothing happens. MSNBC Cenk Uygur criticizes the US government and after a couple warnings he’s fired. Who is the pushing propaganda? You tell me.I would trust RT news about our US government more than any regular main stream American news or even the White House spokesperson.(Especially the WH)

  3. RT is obviously a foreign agent. Somehow we did just fine without RT, and why should we give the Kremlin a soapbox from which to spew its propaganda and defamation?

    Here’s a quick media comparison. Right now, if you google “gaza flood” you get these top results:
    RT: Palestine accuses Israel of opening dams, flooding Gaza, forcing evacuations
    AFP via Yahoo: Gaza floods, dispelling the myth about Israeli “dams”
    Buzzfeed: No, Gaza Was Not Flooded By Israel Opening “The Dams”
    Al Jazeera: ARTICLE RETRACTED. Editor’s note: An earlier version of this page hosted an article which stated that Israel had, without warning, opened a number of dams, which had resulted in a part of Gaza being flooded. This was false. In southern Israel, there are no dams of the type which can be opened. We apologise for this error.

    Don’t hold your breath for RT to retract the libel.

      1. This is a trial balloon for shutting down RT, iike Press TV was shut down in the UK except for the web. Even though the author denies it, or at least squirms out of the claim by saying the time to do so was earlier.

        Contrary to the author’s claims there are groups in Russia registered as foreign agents for receiving foreign funds (ironically, Russia says its law is mirror imaging FARA in both intent and language) that are still in business as I type this. The Committee of Soldiers Mothers and Memorial are still operating to name just two. See that wasn’t hard, but no doubt I will be instantly labeled a ‘Kremlin troll’. No doubt the constant droning about ‘Kremlin trolls’ even as the British army openly sets up social media warrior units and NATO opens cyberwarfare and infowar centers in Talinn at my U.S. tax dollars’ expense is a form of preemption. Because no Anne Applebaum or author shilling for the BBG likes it when an articulate, obviously native English speaker commenter shows up and eviscerates some of the falsehoods contained in their piece in a calm, rational manner.

        To those who STILL want to label me as a Kremlin troll, despite my U.S. IP address and American English…perhaps the reason you suddenly want to shut down RT is because it is the leading international news outlet that lets people know about facts that make the Washington/EU funded Ukrainian government look bad? Facts like that not a single person has been brought to trial and barely two people have been prosecuted in connection with the Odessa massacre of May 2, 2014? Or that while mainstream media pontificate about Nemtsov several months later Kiev just murdered or excuse me, ‘suicided’ at least eight if not twelve Nemtsovs of its own without arresting suspects in 11 out of 12 slayings? And that the website Peacekeeper that published the ‘hit lists’ of the targets names, photos and addresses including Oles Buzina was connected to servers in the U.S. and Canada and immediately shut down when Russian bloggers noticed that a site endorsed by the Deputy Interior Minister of Ukraine was linked to killings? Later on of course the Ukrainians behind ‘the Peacekeeper’

        No basically whenever pro-Ukrainian unity people commit murder in the name of a united Ukraine, or shell entire neighborhoods of Gorlovka and blocks of Donetsk, it’s considered Kremlin apologetics to point out this fact. Well sorry all the anti-RT hysteria as even the author of this piece tacitly admits just looks like the whining of losers at this point. There is only so much lipstick the BBG’s ‘honest journalism’ can put on the pig that is post-Maidan coup Ukraine, what with its currency collapsed in half, hyper-strict capital controls, jobs and economy in free fall from the end of most trade with Russia while EU exports have barely budged at all. No the ‘European’ dream that Kiev promised its people after Yanukovich was overthrown has become little more than a nightmare and a sick joke, with no Schengen visas in sight. Pro-Ukrainians can scream that this is all Putin’s fault but the truth is the EU never was going to let you in even without a civil war your rhetoric of demanding the people of Donetsk and Lugansk embrace your ‘united Ukraine’ or else get shelled or bombed into submission.

        Face it, the U.S. effort in Ukraine is failing because we imagined a bunch of western Ukrainian nationalist freaks and oligarchs were somehow representative of Ukraine as a whole. They aren’t and never were, and the Ukrainian army’s offensives have failed in no small part due to the distinct lack of enthusiasm among central Ukrainians to bleed and die for greater Galicia.

        1. The UK shut down Press TV? Good for them. RT should be next.
          Russian trolls use proxy servers to conceal their location, so your U.S. IP address wouldn’t prove anything.

  4. Wow, how much does RT or your Troll Farm pay you for these comments? A few more like these and the author of this wonderful article could include them as further proof of his point.

    1. The St. Petersburg troll farm pays $1250 per month for English-language trolls, which is a pretty good salary by Russian standards. At 100 comments per day, it comes out to about $0.62 per comment.

      1. How much of my taxpayer money per comment for the trolls NATO is now admitting to operating out of Talinn and Riga? Of course they don’t call them that and I’m not too familiar with the kinds of English mistakes native Balts commonly make, so perhaps they’re a tad harder to spot…

        As I typed above, in a comment that likely won’t get through along with this one, a Ukrainian site called the Peacekeeper put out hits on critics of the Kiev regime including anti-Bandera historian and journalist Oles Buzina. They then had their shills like the fanatical dweeb Catherine A. Fitzpatrick of the Mikhail Khodorkovsky-funded Interpreter Mag fanatically troll RT’s Anissa Nouai, insisting who ya gonna believe the nameless faceless thugs behind ‘the Peacekeeper’ or the Google time stamps that they made postings with Buzina’s address in Kiev before and not after his killing? Keep in mind that Fitzpatrick has been one of the many people insisting that the Kremlin tries to distort reality and the belief in objective facts themselves in order to push its line. But here’s an anti-Russian sovereignty fanatic who has no qualms about telling people who do they believe some lying scumbags who’ve threatened ‘traitors to Ukraine’ with death or the Google record AND scores if not hundreds of eyewitnesses on the Ru net who saw the Peacekeeper post Buzina’s address for a hit and then congratulate his killers with a nice ‘404’ tweet.

        There is simply a very dirty side to this Kiev regime, including its tendency to have people get murdered and then instantly proclaim that the victims either brought it on themselves or the real killers (as in the Maidan sniper shootings) all conveniently got away like OJ’s real killers. RFE/RL and 95% of all U.S. media will NEVER hold Kiev accountable for political killings or false flags as long as the regime can launder the dirty work through proxies like Right Sector or outsource the killing via ‘patriotic civil society’ websites like the Peacekeeper. Anyway did any of the Senators including John McCain who boasted of meeting Andrey Parubiy, co-founder of the Social National Party (read: NAZI) later Svoboda movement ever ask Parubiy why his ‘Maidan Self Defense’ didn’t SHOOT BACK at the ‘Yanukovich snipers’ as they shot their brothers? Why they didn’t shoot or capture a single sniper that day on the Maidan when they had pistols and hunting rifles?

        Again, this isn’t hard. Making the Kiev fanatics look bad only requires asking simple questions. Or in the case of the Odessa progrom showing the Right Sector thugs singing the Ukrainian national anthem and cheering as fellow Odessans were burned alive or jumped from a burning building only to be beaten to death on the pavement below.

        Sorry Ukro-trolls but there’s only so much lipstick you can put on this salo pig. And the same goes for the NATO trolls and RFE/RL employees reading this. Even if you shut down RT the alternative media including Zerohedge is going to hang every Kiev murder and unsolved ‘suicide’ of a Poroshenko critic around your organizations’ collecitve necks. America broke Ukraine and per the Pottery Barn principal now owns it, lock stock and smoking arty shelling babushkas in Donetsk barrels.

        1. “Why they didn’t shoot or capture a single sniper that day on the Maidan when they had pistols and hunting rifles?”

          You try capturing a sniper with a pistol.
          Why didn’t Berkut, which had actual snipers all over the place, shoot or capture a single sniper?

          1. Never mind, I see it was a continuation of “Did any of the Senators ever ask Parubiy…”

  5. “While the Kremlin holds VOA, RFE/RL, CNN, Disney, the BBC, and so on as foreign agents, the United States has not reciprocated.”

    They may be despicable, but we shouldn’t get down in the gutter with them. Better to stick to our ideals of free speech and free press. Anyway at the rate they are still burning through their reserves and hemorrhaging capital (2006 & 2007 were the only years they ever had net capital inflows) the time until their Minsky Moment shrinks.

    Thankfully RT doesn’t have any one central voice like a Dan Rather or a Peter Jennings or even a really dangerous demagogue like Lonesome Rhodes Beck over at The Blaze.

    It’s too bad Kim Jong Un won’t be in Moscow for Victory Day. I was going to tune in to RT to see if they repeat all that crap about the dearly great leader learning to drive at age 3, getting at least 5 or 6 holes-in-one every time he golfs, how he doesn’t need to urinate or shit because he’s a superhuman god, and lastly how one should be wary about getting too close to the dearly great leader as you could melt since he is the embodiment of the sun here on Earth. Would be laughing my ass off if one of RT’s wonky hosts repeated all those host about Putin’s new friend.

  6. As long as AIPAC can escape being registered as an agent of a foreign government, it’s nonsense to claim that any other entity should. When a bull is running through the china shop, you don’t worry that there might be a dog or cat lurking in there too.

    Any reader of this article should watch RT for a few weeks to see how this opinion piece jibes with what is seen. The reporting is outstanding, the topics germane for American viewers and the information passed on is in accord with what I routinely find out from other online sources, but not ABC, CBS and NBC, the wholly owned affiliates of the powers that be.

    1. RT is funded by Russia. AIPAC is funded by Americans, and is a registered American lobbying group. Your false equivalence propaganda won’t fly here.

      Watching RT for more than a few minutes is known to cause vomiting unless you wear a tinfoil hat.

      “the information passed on is in accord with what I routinely find out from other online sources”

      Which online sources? Iran’s PressTV? Infowars? RT does like to interview conspiracy theorists in their mom’s basement. Former RT anchor Liz Wahl, who resigned on air, said that RT has no journalistic standards and will interview any idiot from the internet, err I mean “media analyst,” as long as he bashes America.

      1. AIPAC may be nominally funded by Americans like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson but Mr. Adelson’s best performing casino has been in…Macao. Certainly no problem there ‘Max’? How about the known to be quietly PNG’d Mossad operatives who’ve been caught running AIPAC? No issue there? Or Saudi funding for CAIR? Or Brookings Doha and Dubai money for CSIS and Legatum Institute in the UK? Doesn’t anybody else wonder if a certain amount of the Russia bashing and holy grail of removing Assad we’ve seen in the neocon-GCC lobbies merging in the past few years doesn’t have a teensy bit to do with a Qatari gas pipe needing to remove some Gazprom competition?

        For every Liz Wahl there are probably several low level Moscow Times reporters or editors who could spill the beans about how Spaso House has been giving their senior editors and all the major U.S. bureaus in Moscow talking points for years.

        Trust us when the difference between what the U.S. bureaus in both Moscow and Kiev knew about the Ukrainian government’s lies and what they actually reported comes out, there is going to be plenty of heartburn in D.C. and London alike.

        1. Riiight, so AIPAC is really a foreign agent of Macao because one of its donors made money there…
          What Mossad operatives were caught running AIPAC? Are you talking about the FBI’s failed entrapment scheme against two American lobbyists, whose case was dismissed and charges dropped?

          Your RT propaganda strategy of throwing sh*t at the wall to see what sticks won’t fly here.

          RT is owned and funded by the Russian government to engage in information warfare against the U.S. and its allies.

          An analogue would be Qatar’s Al Jazeera, but at least it retracted an article that was proven false and doesn’t regularly bring on neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers and call them geopolitical analysts and peace activists the way RT does.

    2. Not to mention the ‘Brookings Doha Center’ which is a front for the Qatari government kicking back funds to Brookings main org, regardless of old friend of Bill Strobe Talbott’s denials.

      If the NSA and GCHQ keep playing their ‘Sholtay Boltai’ ‘fun with fake Russian oppo groups we just made up’ sock puppetry games don’t be surprised if ‘CyberBerkut’ dump kompromat about various fanatically pro-US attack Assad neocons being on the Qatari or Saudi payroll on to the web. Hell we’ve noticed a certain amount of gloating on some Russian fp oriented sites that just perhaps Hillary’s path clearing for Russians to buy a big chunk of Canadian uranium mining scandal just maybe perhaps was part of a smooth Russian move to sink a woman who could start WWIII if she’s elected.

      Are you sure you want to play by those Moscow rules 5Eyes or have your designated fake Russian oppo socks miserably confessing on TV that they’ve been nothing more than front men for various NSA/GCHQ hacks of Malofeev or other Russians on DC or London’s craplist?

  7. VOA and RFE/RL, like their sister networks under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which I am a member of, provide a platform for the discussion of multiple points of view. They offer the freedom to speak, to listen, and to know the truth. They empower critical thinkers through news and information programs based on professional journalism and information freedom programs that enable people to capture and share events and what they are thinking.

    Please comment on how RFERL’s firing of Andrey Babitsky, a consistently and fervently anti-Putin journalist who just happened to go against the editorial line on Crimea and the Donbass (by filming a video in which some civilians alleged war crimes on the part of the Aidar far right batallion) tallies with its indisputable credentials as a beacon of free speech and platform for critical and diverse voices.

    I am especially looking forwards to your commentary since RFERL and the head of its Russia desk Brian Whitmore have remained silent on the matter, despite my and other’s inquiries.