MOSCOW, Russia – As Washington and Moscow are locked in a bitter information war, media outlets are caught in the crossfire, raising questions about media freedom in both countries.
On October 9, some American media outlets, including Radio Svoboda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), Nastoyashee Vremya (Current Time television) and Voice of America, received an official notification from the Russian Ministry of Justice warning that Moscow might restrict their operations. The outlets’ activities may be defined as that of foreign agents, the letter added.
“The activity of your organization may be subjected to restrictions envisioned in the legislation of the Russian Federation,” the letter, signed by Vladimir Titov, Russia’s first Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova teased the letter in a statement on October 8, commenting on the pressure Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik International was facing in the United States.
In a U.S. intelligence report, RT, an international television network funded by the Russian government, was accused of being one of the primary channels used by the Kremlin in its attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Explaining Russian authorities’ line of thinking, Ms. Zakharova cited a 1991 Russian law which states that if a Russian media outlet is subject to restrictions in a foreign country, then Moscow has the right to impose proportionate restrictions on media outlets from that country operating inside Russia.
“Every step toward the Russian media will have a corresponding response,” Ms. Zakharova said in a briefing in September.
Contacted by The Globe Post, the RFE/RL Deputy Director Martin Zvaners reiterated the comment on the situation previously made by the outlet’s editor-in-chief.
“Current Time, Radio Svoboda, the Crimean Desk of the Ukrainian Service, and Idel Realii are journalistic organizations. We trust we will be able to continue our work,” RFE/RL Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Nenad Pejic said in a statement after receiving the letter.
Russian authorities’ warnings came after RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan said U.S. officials had ordered RT to register the outlet as a foreign agent by October 17. Ms. Simonyan also said that if RT registers under the FARA, Foreign Agents Registration Act, its employees would be required to disclose their personal information.
RT Communications Director Anna Belkina later clarified that the registration was demanded from a company that services the RT America network in the United States.
Natalia Burlinova, a political scientist and president of the Center for Support and Development of Public Initiatives – Creative Diplomacy, told The Globe Post that “if such a measure is taken against the Russia Today TV channel then Russian authorities have every right to demand that U.S. media outlets in Russia register as ‘foreign agents.'”
“It’s not a good measure, but it’s a mirror measure,” she explained.
One day after the RT deadline, Russia’s former Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak commented on the situation.
“It is something unprecedented, and the reason for it is absolutely unclear. For a country like the U.S. that has been promoting freedom of the press for its whole life and existence, it is shameful,” he said at the Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi.
While the situation remains unresolved, Russian state-funded RT and Sputnik International, along with the U.S. state-funded RFE/RL and The Voice of America, continue to do their job.
On Wednesday, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office told reporters that it has not yet considered the possibility of declaring a number of U.S. media outlets undesirable organizations.
Mikhail Tyurkin, media expert and a senior lecturer at Saint Petersburg State University, told The Globe Post that he does not think it was a wise idea to register media outlets as foreign agents regardless whether it happens in Russia, the U.S. or somewhere else.
“It only leads to the further limitation of freedom of speech and makes media system less pluralistic and diverse, narrowing people’s opportunities to choose their sources of information,” he said.
“Russian government will be wise enough not to force Western media outlets to register as ‘foreign agents.’ There are absolutely no reasons for such a reaction,” Mr. Tyurkin concluded.