DC Radio Station Must Register As Russian Agent, Judge Rules
WASHINGTON — A Washington, D.C. radio station must register as a foreign agent because of its persistent broadcasts of Russian news and information that critics describe as propaganda, a federal judge ruled last week.
This week, the Justice Department hailed the ruling for demonstrating how the Russian government tries to manipulate news and politics in the United States.
Since December 2017, Washington station WZHF-AM has broadcast the English version of Russian government-controlled Radio Sputnik.
The radio broadcasts are part of the Russian government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya, headquartered in Moscow but operating with bureaus worldwide. It directs its news about global politics and economics toward non-Russian audiences.
The New York Times has accused the news agency of deliberate disinformation and running Russian propaganda outlets in the United States and other countries.
A Justice Department statement this week said Americans “have a right to know if a foreign flag waves behind speech broadcast in the United States.”
It added, “Our concern is not the content of the speech but providing transparency about the true identity of the speaker.”
Hosts of the Radio Sputnik news programs have included Eugene Puryear, a former U.S. vice presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation; and John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst who confirmed the United States used waterboarding to interrogate al Qaeda prisoners.
The Justice Department last year ordered WZHF’s owner, RM Broadcasting of Jupiter, Florida, to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Instead, RM filed a counterclaim, saying it did not control the station’s content or intend to spread foreign propaganda.
However, Judge Robin Rosenberg ruled last week in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, Florida, that RM’s intentions were irrelevant. The controlling issue was a contract in which RM agreed to accept payment for broadcast services from Rossíya Segódnya, thereby making Radio Sputnik a foreign agent.
The dispute also is reviving long-dormant concerns the Foreign Agents Registration Act will be used more broadly by the Justice Department against the foreign media.
Congress approved the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda. It requires agents of foreign governments to register with the U.S. government, disclose their associations and report their financing sources.
Most commonly, it has been used against lobbyists and business executives representing foreign interests. Only rarely have members of the media been required to register.
The judge in the Radio Sputnik case acknowledged uncertainties created by the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
“This Court acknowledges, as have others, that the language of FARA is broad,” Rosenberg wrote. “Nevertheless, the Court must apply the statutory language as written; it is not for the Court to rewrite the statute.”
In her decision to grant a judgment on the Justice Department’s pleadings, she wrote, “RM Broadcasting contends … that it simply buys and resells radio airtime and has resold some of that airtime to Rossiya Segodnya.”
She added, “However, under the explicit language of the Services Agreement that the Court has quoted above, RM Broadcasting is required to do much more than resell radio airtime to Rossiya Segodnya. Notably, RM Broadcasting is required to ‘broadcast/transmit Radio Programs.”
As a result, RM “satisfies the definition of an agent of a foreign principal,” Rosenberg wrote.
The court ruling continues a rising struggle between Russian and American media outlets that started amid suspicions that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tried to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.
It was followed by a January 2017 report from U.S. intelligence agencies that said RM’s television affiliate, RT America, was “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.” Some of its programming was intended to influence the 2016 election, the report said.
A few months later, the U.S. government officially classified RT America as a foreign agent. Other foreign news organizations, such as Britain’s BBC and China’s CCTV, are not listed as foreign agents.
Putin responded by authorizing the Russian government to require U.S. media organizations, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to register as foreign agents.