Adopted in 1938 to counter pro-Nazi agitation on US soil, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, exists so that “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.”
There are 401 entities in the active FARA register and include tourist boards and lobbyists, but no media outlets, which have traditionally been exempt from the legislation.
"The war the US establishment wages with our journalists is dedicated to all the starry-eyed idealists who still believe in freedom of speech. Those who invented it, have buried it," said RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan.
Earlier this year, a Democratic Senator and two Congressmen from both parties introduced a bill called the Agents Registration Modernization and Enforcement Act, which would broaden the scope of FARA. They specifically named RT as a target of the law, which has not gone to a vote in either chamber.
Simonyan has condemned the proposed legislation.
“I wonder how US media outlets, which have no problems while working in Moscow, and that are not required to register as foreign agents, will treat this initiative,” she said last week.
'Spy mania’: FBI reportedly probing another Russian news website
The demand comes amid reports of an FBI investigation into possible FARA violations by another English-language, Moscow-headquartered news outlet – Sputnik.
Yahoo News reported that the investigation is centered on Andrew Feinberg, a former White House correspondent for the website, who handed over a “thumb drive containing thousands of internal Sputnik emails and documents,” after being fired in May.
“They wanted to know where did my orders come from and if I ever got any direction from Moscow,” Feinberg, who says that he was interviewed by FBI agents for two hours, told Yahoo News. “They were interested in examples of how I was steered towards covering certain issues.”
Sputnik dismissed the investigation, which Yahoo News says could also be part of the wider Robert Mueller inquiry into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“That an investigation is being conducted against us is not surprising, since the atmosphere of hysteria in relation to everything that belongs to Russia has been created in the country, and everything with the word ‘Russian’ is seen through the prism of spy mania,” Mindia Gavasheli, editor-in-chief of the Sputnik Bureau in Washington DC, said in a statement. “We are journalists, and mostly Americans work here. We believe that any assumption that we are engaged in anything other than journalism is an absolute lie and fabrication.”
Crossing a red line
Several observers said that Russian media outlets were being singled out, and the legal pressure upon them could have grave implications for freedom of speech.
"No matter one's feelings on Russia or Sputnik, I think it's concerning anytime the FBI gets involved in defining who is and isn't a journalist," said Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, to the Washington Examiner. "Narrowing the media exception under FARA could not only have implications for all sorts of other foreign news outlets operating in the U.S., but also for Voice of America or independent journalists operating overseas if Russia chooses to retaliate."
Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University, told the Washington Examiner that "the investigation into Sputnik crosses a long-observed red line for media."
"Countries around the world have long accused media of being tools of foreign governments as a pretense for investigations and arrests. The line between government direction and pro-government bias is a subtle one - many media moguls have a bias and close ties to governments," he said, adding that since the pursuit of Sputnik is "part of the Russian influence investigation, many of those normally supportive of the free press are silent."