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Judge orders Florida-based broadcast company to register as agent for Russia

Vladimir Putin's Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. (The Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A U.S. judge has backed a Justice Department ruling that Florida-based RM Broadcasting must register as an agent of Russia under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), another move in the two countries’ dispute over foreign broadcast operations.

In a May 13 statement, the Justice Department said RM Broadcasting has been acting as an agent of a “Russian state-owned media enterprise created by Vladimir Putin to advance Russian interests abroad.”

RM Broadcasting buys and then resells airtime on the WZHF-AM radio station in the Washington, D.C., area to Sputnik International broadcasting from Moscow 24 hours a day and is thus under the “direction and control” of Sputnik’s parent company, Russian-government owned Rossiya Segodnya, the Justice Department said.

U.S.-owned RM denied the allegation and insisted it simply handles leasing of broadcast airtime and is not involved with its content.

“The American people have a right to know if a foreign flag waves behind speech broadcast in the United States,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said of RM Broadcasting.

“Our concern is not the content of the speech but providing transparency about the true identity of the speaker. This case shows that the [Justice] Department can and will utilize all of its tools to bring transparency to efforts by foreign entities to influence the American public and our government, and demonstrates our renewed effort to enforce FARA rigorously.”

Among many severe strains in their relationship, Russia and the United States are at odds over the treatment of Russian media outlets in the United States and U.S. media outlets in Russia.

FARA, passed in 1938 to counter fears of Nazi propaganda and misinformation, does not restrict foreign media operating in the United States, but requires things such as accounting registers, corporate documents, and similar records be made available for Justice Department inspection.

In November 2017, the U.S. operating unit of Russian state-funded television channel RT — a company called T&R Productions LLC — was required to register in the United States under FARA.

Two days later, a U.S.-owned radio station that had signed a contract to broadcast Sputnik newscasts filed its FARA registration, saying it had been forced to by U.S. authorities against its objections. The Virginia-based radio station also broadcast Sputnik programming to the Washington, D.C., area on the FM band.

Months after that, Sputnik said its U.S.-based partner company, RIA Global LLC, had been ordered to register as a foreign agent by the U.S. government.

In late 2017, Putin signed a law that enables the country’s Justice Ministry to designate foreign media outlets “foreign agents.”

Shortly thereafter, Russia declared Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and seven affiliated news services “foreign agents.”

RFE/RL is a private, nonprofit organization funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress and overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which supervises civilian government broadcasting and media operations. U.S. law guarantees the editorial independence of RFE/RL by establishing an information firewall between the organization and the U.S. government.

U.S. officials argue that the U.S. and Russian laws differ substantially and that Russia uses its foreign-agent legislation to silence dissent and discourage a free exchange of ideas.

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 access to cable TV in Russia.

In its latest action, the Justice Department said RM Broadcasting through the radio station was in effect providing publicity for Russia through an agreement with state-run Rossiya Segodnya.

The Justice Department said Rossiya Segodnya was created by Putin in 2013 to “advance Russian interests abroad.” Its goal is to “provide information on Russian state policy and Russian life and society for audiences abroad,” according to Putin’s decree.

RM Broadcasting had asked Florida U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg to reverse the earlier Justice Department ruling.

Nicole Hughes Waid, an attorney for RM, said the company disagreed with the court ruling but said an appeal was unlikely because of the costs involved.

RM Broadcasting is owned by Arnold Ferolito, a 76-year-old, New York-based U.S. citizen with a long career in broadcasting, according to his court filings.