Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a new law on Saturday allowing international media outlets to be listed as foreign agents, according to Russian state media. The law is intended as direct retaliation for the new U.S. requirement that the Kremlin-backed RT news outlet register as a foreign agent with the Justice Department — which the website and television channel finally did earlier this month. Indeed, the Russian Embassy in the U.S. promised a quick “symmetrical” response at that time.
Per the new Russian law, any media organization operating in Russia that receives financial support from foreign organizations or governments can now be designated a foreign agent, depending on the judgment of the Russian Ministry of Justice. Voice of America and the Russia-based outlets run by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, all of which are funded by the U.S. government, will likely be the first U.S. organizations to face the designation, as Russian lawmakers had already been threatening to do following the RT news. It’s yet not clear if Russia will target traditional U.S. news organizations as well.
RT’s influence in America has come under closer scrutiny following Russia’s attempts to interfere in last year’s U.S. presidential election, particularly since the U.S. intelligence community highlighted the network’s role in that interference last January. In September — amid growing political pressure in Washington to do more in response to Russia’s election-meddling — the U.S. told RT it would need to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law passed to limit the reach of pro-Nazi propaganda in America.
According to the U.S. intelligence community, RT’s American channel is staffed, supervised, and financed by the Kremlin, and “has substantially expanded its repertoire of programming that highlights criticism of alleged US shortcomings in democracy and civil liberties” in an effort to influence Americans.
RT, which used to be called Russia Today, has insisted it is not one of the Kremlin’s propaganda arms, and initially fought the registration requirement. When they finally did register, RT acknowledged that its parent company, ANO TV-Novosti, was funded by the Russian government “to a substantial extent,” but that the network was “not sufficiently aware of who supervises, owns, directs, controls or subsidizes ANO TV-Novosti” to actually detail those foreign ties.
Exactly how (or if) these dueling “foreign agent” designations will actually affect news outlets operating in the U.S. or Russia is not yet clear.