New Turns of the Sanctions Spiral

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Evgeniya Drozhashchikh – Rethinking Russia expert

The Speaker of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin has announced that Russia is ready to adopt tit-for-tat measures against the United States in the sphere of regulation of foreign mass media working in Russia. This allows us to predict a fightback in the Russian-American sanctions ping-pong match.

The USA was first to violate the seemingly basic principles of democracy and the freedom of speech. The US intelligence report published in 2016 and analyzing so-called “Russian meddling in the American presidential election” accused RT America of “undermining American liberal order” and, in fact, incriminated the failure of Hillary Clinton, cast in a negative light. This led to an outpouring of hostile rhetoric. In line with the theory of Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells about the informational society of the 21st century, where those who work in media rather than other strata run the political show, American foreign policy and national security experts started to pay more attention to the issue of propaganda and nondissemination of the information hostile to the United States. The most vivid examples of this were Twitter’s ban on ads from RT and Sputnik on its platform (RT is said to have spent more than $274,000 on ads in Twitter in 2016) and the US Department of Justice demand for RT “foreign agent” registration announced September 11. Reportedly, the Department of Justice set a deadline for the company to register its new legal status – November 13. So, what are the conditions that Russian company must fulfill?

The US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) which RT and Sputnik are now being put under was adopted in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda. According to the Act, if the work of any entity in the United States was controlled and organized by a foreign government, it had to register itself in the Department of Justice. But the document did not touch news agencies if there was no direct evidence of their dependence on foreign governments.

Today the division of TV and radio broadcasting companies into “foreign agents” and “democratic means of transmitting information” in the United States is quite ambivalent. BBC (Great Britain) and Deutsche Welle (Germany) were granted freedom of speech embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, while China Daily (China), NHK Cosmomedia (Japan) and KBS Korean Broadcasting System (South Korea), apparently, were at their worst and had to accept FARA stipulations. The current situation when RT and Sputnik are forced to register themselves as “foreign agents” was described by Russia’s embassy in the United States as “demonstration of double standards”. However, there is no way to bypass it: if the companies refuse to register, they could face civil or criminal prosecution under the law in addition to a fine up to $10,000 or five years in prison.

“The American Justice Department has left us with no choice. Our lawyers say that if we do not register as a foreign agent, the director of our company in America could be arrested, and the accounts of the company could be seized. In short, in this situation the company would not be able to work. Between those consequences and registering as a foreign agent, we are forced to choose registration, although, of course we strongly disagree with this requirement”,  – RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said.

So, RT and Sputnik, most probably, will become subject to permanent censorship and will have to prepare reports on its financial activities and sources of information that they will publish.

The bill aimed to amend FARA introduced by congressmen David Cicilline and Matthew Gaetz in June 2017 will only add fuel to the fire: its adoption will allow the US Department of Justice to request organizations’ documents to carry out FBI investigations without initiation of a criminal/administrative case.

So, Russia’s mirror-like measures against American media outlets and online platforms, which, according to Vyacheslav Volodin, “interfere in Russia’s internal affairs”, should become a response to the tactics tested by the United States. Retaliatory sanctions may affect Voice of America, Radio Liberty and several American sites.

An agreed list of, at least American, news agencies, which will be sanctioned by Russia, will soon be announced. Of course, American establishment’s logic of restraining Russia as an opponent will only tighten the Gordian knot and aggravate sanction crisis. But at the same time it will open a “window of opportunities” for them to demonstrate their ability to make delicate manoeuvres and find a way out of the existing situation. Probably, when the states close each other’s most active media, they will seek for a new foothold in social media. And if Russia is unlikely to connect with Twitter and Facebook, the United States can try to extend its reach with the aid of the uncompliant to Russia’s authorities Telegram. And this can provoke a new discussion about the threats to Russia’s information security.

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