RT — The Foreign Agent in Your TV Set
The motto of RT, the Kremlin-backed propaganda network, is “question more.” RT loves to pose questions about all manner of conspiracy theories, such as the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job. However, one subject which RT dares not question is the nature of its own organization.
- What is RT America?
- Does the Kremlin pay its bills?
- Is RT a foreign agent?
What is RT America?
RT describes itself as a “publicly-funded, non-profit organization.” It is a brand of ANO TV-Novosti, an “autonomous non-profit organization”, established in Moscow 2005 by the now-defunct Russian news agency, RIA Novosti. In the United States, it operates through a US corporation that is RT in all but name.
When it first launched in 2005 the network called itself “Russia Today” but it rebranded itself in 2009 as the more ambiguous RT. “We removed ‘Russia Today’ from the logo after many colleagues, also from foreign media, told us that it was diminishing our potential audience,” said Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor in chief told The Moscow Times. “Who is interested in watching news from Russia all day long?”
Fans of “alternative facts” love to tune in to RT, which bombards viewers in Europe, the UK (where RT’s bank accounts have been frozen) and America with all sorts of outlandish stories in English, Arabic, Spanish, and, of course, Russian.
The US intelligence community devoted a good deal of its report on Russia’s interference in the US elections to RT, saying it was part of “a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest” and noting that RT’s editor in chief Margarita Simonyan was close to the Kremlin. Not to be outdone, Simonyan cleverly mocked the report in an open letter titled, “Dear CIA.”
Does the Kremlin pays its bills?
RT’s budget of more than $300 million comes from the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation. (By comparison, the budget of the BBC, which is funded by the British government, is $375 million). In other words, yes, the Kremlin pays the bills.
Is RT a foreign agent?
The funny thing about RT is that the only place you will find it in the United States is on your TV set. RT has been very careful not to have any legal or physical presence in the United States.
The only legal paperwork I could find for RT was a 2009 US trademark application:
As you can see, RT’s own trademark states that it produces “ongoing news shows pertaining to current events in Russia.”
The trademark was obtained by RTTV America Inc., the commercial entity through which RT America operates in the United States.
RT’s editor Margarita Simonyan says that RT does not need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. RT “simply transfers funds” to RTTV America.
However, this is a fig leaf. RT’s own trademark application, shows that RTTV America assigned its entire interest in the trademark to ANO TV-Novosti in Moscow.
The entire value of the RT brand in the United States belongs to a Russian corporation.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1933 is designed to “insure that the US government and the people of the United States are informed of the source of information (propaganda) and the identity of persons attempting to influence US public opinion, policy, and laws.”
As the Atlantic noted, two Asian television networks and the distributors for two Chinese daily newspapers have registered under FARA. NHK, which rebroadcasts Japanese programming in the United States, is registered as a foreign agent.
The FARA statute exempts news organizations unless they are “owned, directed, supervised, controlled, subsidized or financed” by any organization registered outside the United States. It’s clear that RT is funded by the Russian government. So, yes, RT is a foreign agent.
Ilya Ponomarev, a leftist former member of the Russian Duma who now lives in exile in the United States, told Buzzfeed that RT is not a media outlet, and should register as a foreign agent.
“It’s a great mistake that the west is doing, that it’s acknowledging it as a media tool,” he said. “I think it’s a lobbying tool and it should be regulated as a lobbyist rather than media.”
“Russia Today is way more dangerous than ISIS. Way more dangerous,” he said. “Because ISIS may create physical danger with certain western individuals who are coming into direct contact with ISIS, but RT is very focused and committed in disputing the very core values of western society.”
The most difficult question to answer is whether RT deserves First Amendment protections. I’ll try to tackle that in a future post.