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U.S. Radio Station Registers As 'Foreign Agent' For Russian Sputnik Broadcasts

Dmitry Kiselyov, an anchorman at RT, at a presentation of the then-new Russian news agency Sputnik in Moscow in November 2014
Dmitry Kiselyov, an anchorman at RT, at a presentation of the then-new Russian news agency Sputnik in Moscow in November 2014

WASHINGTON -- A Washington, D.C., area radio station that recently took over broadcasts of the Russian state-funded news outlet Sputnik has registered under the U.S. foreign-agent law, just days after the TV channel RT did.

The station’s owner, a Virginia company called Reston Translator, filed the paperwork with the Justice Department on November 15, the same day that Russia’s lower house of parliament passed new measures containing potential restrictions for foreign-funded media outlets.

Under the contract, which was posted on the Justice Department’s foreign-agent database, Sputnik is paying $900,000 to Reston Translator to rebroadcast a live audio stream from Sputnik’s website.

Sputnik Radio is owned and operated by Rossia Segodnya news group, a media-holding company that was formed in 2014 in an effort by the Kremlin to consolidate control over several state-funded media outlets. Sputnik runs radio broadcasts and news websites in 30 languages.

In June, Reston Translator gave up its bluegrass music broadcasts and signed the deal with Sputnik.

U.S. law enforcement officials later contacted Reston’s main owner, communication lawyer John Garziglia, and notified him that he needed to file under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a decades-old law that requires people working in the United States for a foreign government in a "political or quasi-political capacity" to register with the Justice Department.

In response to the Justice Department’s demand for registration, Garziglia objected to the demand, arguing the company did not meet the requirements of FARA. But he said he would still comply.

“We do so because we have been directed to do so, not because it is required by law,” he said.

“Reston Translator LLC appreciates the role of the Department of Justice, National Security Division, in carrying out the purposes of FARA...” he wrote. "Reston Translator LLC further acknowledges that you and your National Security Division may have significant questions as to the activities of [Rossia] Segodnya in our United States.”

While Reston Translator was forced to comply with the law, it wasn’t immediately clear if Sputnik, or Rossia Segodnya, had also registered.

Mindia Gavasheli, a top editor with Sputnik's U.S. operation, said the agency had not registered.

"It's very disappointing for me to see our partners, that have nothing to do with our editorial policies or production, to come under such pressure, essentially forcing them to take steps that have in our opinion very little to do with legal requirements and are purely political," Gavasheli told RFE/RL in an e-mail.

On November 13, RT, which previously was known as Russia Today, filed FARA registration for its U.S. operating unit with the Justice Department after weeks of protests and threats.

Both RT and Sputnik came under growing pressure from U.S authorities in the wake of a U.S. intelligence report released in January that accused them of spreading misinformation as part of a Russian-government effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.

In May, FBI and Justice Department officials questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik about the organization's editorial operations. Andrew Feinberg, who was fired from Sputnik in May, also told RFE/RL that he turned over a thumb drive containing thousands of internal e-mails from his five months at Sputnik.

RT joined at least six other foreign media outlets that are currently registered under FARA, including Canada's CBC, Japan's NHK, and the China Daily.

On November 15, within hours of Russian lawmakers passing the new restrictions, the Russian Justice Ministry sent warnings to at least five RFE/RL news services.

The letters did not specify what potential restrictions they could face, but lawmakers have said designated media could be subjected to detailed financial reporting requirements and be required to label published material as coming from a foreign agent.

While RT and Sputnik distribute their programs freely in the United States, 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 any 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.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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