WASHINGTON -- Russia's state-funded RT television network has registered in the United States under a decades-old law intended to limit foreign governments from spreading propaganda in the country.
The filing from RT’s American operating unit, T&R Productions LLC, was dated November 10 and was acknowledged by the Justice Department late on November 13.
"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," U.S. acting Assistant Attorney General Dana Boente said, in the department's first comment on the matter.
While RT had protested the registration requirement as an abandonment of the U.S. constitutional guarantee of press freedom, Boente said asking agents of foreign governments to disclose basic information about themselves to the public "does not inhibit freedom of expression [and] does not restrict the content of information disseminated."
RT officials first disclosed the department's request that the channel comply with the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), which requires people working in the United States for a foreign government in a "political or quasi-political capacity" to register.
A report from U.S. intelligence agencies in January said that RT and the website called Sputnik spread misinformation as part of a Russian-government effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.
In the run-up to the filing, Russian lawmakers and Foreign Ministry officials repeatedly complained about the pressure, and warned of retaliation against U.S. media in Russia, including RFE/RL.
"Forced to choose between a criminal case and registration, we chose the latter. And we congratulate American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it," RT's editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, said in a Twitter post on November 13.
RT joins at least six other foreign media outlets that are currently registered under FARA, including Canada's CBC, Japan's NHK, and the China Daily.
In Moscow, one senior Russian lawmaker said parliament was drafting legislation under which some foreign media could be deemed "foreign agents" in Russia.
Andrei Isayev, who is the deputy head of the United Russia party's parliamentary faction, said Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, CNN, and German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle were among the organizations that could qualify once the legislation is passed.
The comments from Isayev echoed remarks by parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin last week. President Vladimir Putin suggested on November 11 that some of the proposals discussed in the parliament might be too harsh, but he also asserted that Russian media outlets were under attack in the United States.
Deputy speaker Pyotr Tolstoi said on November 13 that the legislation would not affect media outlets' bureaus or correspondents in Russia, only the media companies themselves. He did not provide details.
The scope of Russia's current "foreign agents" law, which Kremlin critics and civil-society activists say has been used to silence dissent and discourage a free exchange of ideas, does not include media outlets.
While RT distributes its programs freely in the United States on cable television, RFE/RL is already subject to severe restrictions in Russia, with nearly all of its radio broadcasts forced off the air by 2012 due to administrative pressure. Neither RFE/RL nor VOA has access to cable TV in Russia.
U.S. officials say the Russian law differs significantly from FARA, which was passed in 1938 specifically to counter fears of Nazi propaganda and misinformation being spread in the United States.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said last month that the need for registration "is simply triggered when an entity or an individual engages in political activity."
Russia's threats against U.S. media come ahead of a March 2018 presidential election in which Putin is widely expected to seek a new six-year term. The Kremlin's control over the media and political levers, along with his popularity, make his victory a foregone conclusion.