The Russian government recently announced that some American journalists will be required to register with the government as “foreign agents.” The bill, voted on unanimously by Russian lawmakers and signed by President Vladimir Putin, is a direct response to the Justice Department’s recent decision that Russia Today, a state-run Russian news outlet, must register as a foreign agent in the U.S.
While both governments reserve the right to monitor the flow of foreign workers in their countries, the connotations of “foreign agent” construe journalists as political actors. This threatens journalists who rely on perceptions of objectivity for security around the world — and further exacerbates a public distrust of the media.
The Russian government announced that nine news outlets — including Voice of America — would be affected by this new law. This announcement comes on the heels of intense speculation that outlets like CNN might be required to register. They were not included in the list of outlets, however. Yet, this decision does have implications for press freedom around the world, as the legal language of “foreign agents” is part of politicizing fact-based journalism.
In 1938, Congress passed the “Foreign Agents Registration Act” during World War II as an attempt to combat pro-Nazi propaganda. The act required that anyone operating "at the order, request, or under the direction or control" of a foreign government in a "political or quasi-political capacity" register with U.S. officials. In 1966, the law was amended, constraining the definition of foreign agents even further. Under the revision, foreign agents were those who sought to influence governmental decision-making to gain an economic or political advantage. Thus, the focus on registering foreign agents shifted to strictly diplomats and lobbyists.
During these discussions, lawmakers strictly guarded against language that could construe news organizations as foreign agents, writing that protection into the legal code. In requiring RT to register as a foreign agent, the government expanded the definition of the term. While it has been proven that RT operated under the direction of the Russian government to push a political agenda during the 2016 election, the government must be careful in how its treatment of journalists may enable autocratic crackdowns of press freedom around the world.
On the same day Putin signed his “foreign agent” bill, President Trump tweeted an attack on CNN: “ outside of the U.S., CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly. The outside world does not see the truth from them!” Four days later, he tweeted, “ we should boycott Fake News CNN. Dealing with them is a total waste of time!”
Some may view this kind of rhetoric as little more than political back and forth with the media. But, in parts of the world where a free press isn’t so robust or established, this kind of language may enable foreign governments hoping to undermine the public’s trust in news organizations that hold them accountable. For example, following Trump’s attack on CNN, the Libyan government began questioning the veracity of an undercover CNN report that showed people being sold as slaves in the country.
Registering RT as a propaganda arm for the Russian government works as long as it does not become a slippery legal slope that enables authoritarian crackdowns around the world. It is the United States’ responsibility to protect the press freedom — not compromise it — both here and abroad.