On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that would allow his government to register U.S. media as foreign agents. The move comes not long after multiple Russian officials threatened retaliatory action in response the U.S. government’s recent decision to force Russia Today, a state-owned Russian media company, to register as a foreign agent.
The Foreign Agent Registration Act was passed in the United States shortly before the start of World War II. It was established to “insure 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.”
After evidence of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election mounted, RT and Sputnik, another state-owned media company, were specifically mentioned in a January report conducted by U.S. intelligence agencies as having made deliberate efforts to influence the American public’s opinions on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton:
Russia’s state-run propaganda machine—comprised of its domestic
media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls—contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences. State-owned Russian media made increasingly favorable comments about President-elect Trump as the 2016 US general and primary election campaigns progressed while consistently offering negative coverage of Secretary Clinton.
The Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today) has actively collaborated with WikiLeaks. RT’s editor-in-chief visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in August 2013, where they discussed renewing his broadcast contract with RT, according to Russian and Western media. Russian media subsequently announced that RT had become “the only Russian media company” to partner with WikiLeaks and had received access to “new leaks of secret information.” RT routinely gives Assange sympathetic coverage and provides him a platform to denounce the United States.
In September, Maria Zakharova, director of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicated that the U.S. should anticipate pushback for its actions against state-funded Russian media.
“Russia is dedicated to all international statues and norms regarding the freedom of speech and proved that on many occasions,” she said. “When it comes down to a fight with no rules when the law is twisted and turned into an instrument for the destruction of a TV company, every step against a Russian media outlet will be met with a corresponding response. And whom this response will be aimed at, that is what Washington needs to figure out well. The clock is ticking.”
In October, the UK-based Russian embassy published a threatening tweet conveying the same message.
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) October 9, 2017
Earlier this month, Zakharova suggested that “a practical phase of these response measures” against U.S. media in Russia were set to begin within a week.