OSCE condemns labeling media as 'foreign agents' – but only after Russia did it
“Branding media entities as ‘foreign agents’ is a dangerous practice, as it can narrow the space for freedom of the media,” said Harlem Desir, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, in a statement on Thursday. The official then expressed his “concern” about measures taken by the US and Russia “requiring the media entities from other countries to register themselves as ‘foreign agents.’”
Registration of media outlets as foreign agents is not acceptable, Desir said, expressing further concerns over “pieces of legislation, while originally designed for non-media actors, … being extended to cover the media,” the OSCE said in its statement.
The OSCE media representative then warned that registration as a foreign agent would most likely impose “additional administrative burdens” upon the affected media organization as well as would “stigmatize” their journalists. “I call on both the Unites States and the Russian Federation to reconsider and refrain from requiring media entities to register as ‘foreign agents’ and not take further steps,” he said, as he offered his assistance to both countries in resolving the issue.
Desir also asked both the US and Russia to clarify the reasons behind the labeling, as well as the consequences it can have for the media's ability to operate freely in both countries.
The OSCE decided to voice its criticism right after the reciprocal moves had been taken by Russia, after staying silent for months while RT was facing pressure from the US government.
The exchange was started by the US, which targeted RT America amid the ongoing hysteria over Russia’s alleged influence on the US 2016 presidential elections. It was also the US, which demanded that RT registered under the 1938 piece of legislation initially designed to counter pro-Nazi propaganda.
Finally, it was Washington that threated RT with staff arrests, property seizures and legal action in case it fails to comply with the US Justice Department's demands before November 13. Faced with the ultimatum, RT ultimately had to register as a foreign agent in the US.
In response, the Russian lawmakers passed a law requiring foreign mass-media outlets operating in the country to register as foreign agents. Following the move, the Russian Justice Ministry sent letters to nine media outlets, informing them it is possible they might have to register.
At the same time, RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, offered her condolences on Wednesday to all journalists “at all media organizations – Russian and foreign alike – who have been caught up in Washington’s political games.”
Asked for comment in November, when the witch hunt targeting RT was already in full swing, the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media said it has “just” been notified about RT’s registration as a foreign agent in the US. It refused to provide any comment on the issue at that time.
A number of institutionalized journalist associations, including the US Press Association and the National Union of Journalists in the UK and Ireland, also preferred to stay away from trouble by refusing to comment.
The pressure exerted on RT by the US government did not go entirely unnoticed, however. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international rights group, called RT’s registration as a foreign agent a “troubling precedent.”
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author and former professor at Princeton University, denounced it as “one of the most horrendous blows to press freedom since the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s.”
NSA whistleblower William Binney also criticized Washington’s move and called it a direct violation of the First Amendment and freedom of speech.