FBI probing Russian media groups
UNITED STATES: The FBI is investigating two Russian government-funded media organisations that operate in the US, after accusations that they were part of a massive Kremlin operation to help swing last year’s presidential election in favour of Donald Trump.
Russia Today, Moscow’s flagship English-language television broadcaster, and Sputnik News, a radio and wire service funded by the Kremlin, claim to be legitimate news-gathering organisations, no different from the BBC. But the FBI is exploring whether they should be required to register as foreign agents, invoking a US law originally passed before World War II to prevent the spread of and helping Trump win November.
Some former employees of the Russian media organisations, which operate from separate offices several blocks from the White House, agree with that assessment.
Sputnik ‘‘is not a news agency. It’s meant to look like one, but it’s propaganda’’, said Andrew Feinberg, a former White House correspondent for Sputnik. He said FBI agents interviewed him for two hours last month about the Russian government’s influence over the operation.
Feinberg said that during his five months at Sputnik, his editors were interested almost exclusively in stories about political conspira- last cies, and made it clear that the organisation took orders from Moscow.
‘‘They always wanted to make the US government look stupid. I was constantly told, ‘Moscow wanted this or Moscow wanted that’.’’
The question of who dictated editorial decisions was of particular concern to the FBI agents who questioned him, Feinberg said. ‘‘They wanted to know, ‘Did they get their direction from Moscow,’ and of course the answer was yes.’’ He said he gave the FBI thousands of emails to and from editors from his time at Sputnik.
Mindia Gavasheli, the Sputnik bureau chief in Washington, declined to comment.
RT said on its website it had received a letter from the US Department of Justice requesting it to register as a foreign agent. The company did not say if it would comply.
‘‘The war the US establishment wages with our journalists is dedicated to all the starry-eyed idealists who still believe in freedom of speech,’’ RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said. ‘‘Those who invented it have buried it.’’
It is not clear if the FBI investigation is part of the much broader investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller into whether Trump’s aides illegally cooperated with Russian authorities before or after last year’s election. Trump and Russia’s government have denied improper dealings.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), passed in 1938, requires anyone in the US who acts ‘‘at the order, request, or under the direction or control’’ of a foreign government to register with the Justice Department and to disclose financial information. It provides an exception for ‘‘any news or press service’’ as long at its coverage is not directed by a foreign government.
FARA experts say that if RT and Sputnik refuse the requests to register, they could face civil or criminal prosecution. The law carries penalties of up to five years in prison and fines of up to US$10,000. - LA TImes