In a letter dated November 21, the Executive Committee of the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Galleries at the U.S. Congress notified RT that it had voted unanimously to withdraw the Russian government-funded international broadcaster’s credentials after the U.S. Justice Department forced RT to register as a foreign agent earlier that month.
RT posted the letter on its website. It reads: “The rules of the Galleries state clearly that news credentials may not be issued to any applicant employed ‘by any foreign government or representative thereof.’ Upon its registration as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), RT Network became ineligible to hold news credentials.”
The U.S. Congress created the original press gallery in the late 19th Century, to take the responsibility of journalist accreditation from the shoulders of the House Speaker, the elected leader of the House of Representatives. In 1939, Congress established the Radio-Television Correspondents Galleries to handle broadcast media accreditation. The Galleries are under the control of separate committees of correspondents, which decide on which news outlets qualify for press credentials. The Galleries handle “accreditation, liaison, distribution of information, management of logistics, and enforcement of rules.”
The decision means that RT is no longer able to access the press galleries of the U.S. Congress, and assign reporters to attend congressional sessions, hearings and news conferences.
Commenting on the decision, RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan stated: “To all the self-righteous defenders of 'freedom of speech' who oh-so-ardently proclaimed that FARA registration places no restrictions whatsoever on RT's journalistic work in the US: Withdrawal of Congressional credentials speaks much louder than empty platitudes.”
She continued: “And to borrow from Orwell, all ‘foreign agents‘ are equal, but looks like only RT is denied congressional accreditation on the basis of FARA status, while the likes of NHK and China Daily carry on business as usual, and US officials continue to claim that the forced FARA registration for RT America's operating company isn't at all discriminatory.”
In its piece criticizing the decision, RT quoted George Galloway, a former British lawmaker who is now one of its broadcasters, as saying: “You make someone register as a foreign agent, and then you ban them because they are foreign agents. It is the ultimate Catch-22.”
RT also quoted Richard Black, a Republican Virginia state senator, as describing the decision as “absolutely censorship.”
Polygraph.info previously fact-checked similar statements, including by Simonyan (fact-check 1, fact-check 2, and fact-check 3), made in the context of the outlet’s registration as a foreign agent.
Criticism of RT
Objecting to its registration under FARA, RT has been portraying itself as a bona fide media outlet engaged in journalism. However, many experts accuse it of spreading propaganda, as well as socially- and politically-polarizing content, on the Kremlin’s behalf.
Asked by the newspaper Kommersant in a 2008 interview why Russian taxpayers should finance their government’s foreign-language media, Simonyan replied: “Well, roughly speaking, for the same reason the country needs the Ministry of Defense.” RT, she added, led an information war against the entire Western media during Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and stands ready to do so again if needed.
Asked how RT’s governmental objectives fit with journalistic integrity, she said: “Well, the same way as for all the other channels. There is no impartiality.”
A January 2017 U.S. intelligence report probing Russia’s alleged interference into the 2016 U.S. presidential election concluded that RT “conducts strategic messaging for [the] Russian government” and “seeks to influence politics, [and] fuel discontent in the U.S.”
According to Charles Lewis, a professor at American University’s School of Communication and executive editor of its Investigative Reporting Workshop, over the past year RT “has been found to have worked in direct and obvious tandem with the Russian government at the same time as its apparent interference in the recent 2016 presidential election.”
As such, he says, RT “no longer has the appearance or the apparent reality of just another international, foreign government-funded broadcast organization.”
On November 13, RT complied with the U.S. Department of Justice order to register as a foreign agent.
New Developments, Similar Allegations
Following the Gallery’s executive committee decision, the Russian broadcaster aimed harsh criticism at the U.S. government, hinting it was a violaton of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment free speech protections.
On November 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill allowing designation of news outlets receiving foreign funding as foreign agents. Authorities have designated nine U.S. outlets, including the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as Polygraph.info’s partner Factograph, as foreign agents and banned their journalists from the Russian parliament.
The decision to strip RT’s news credentials came after the U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert stated just a day earlier that “FARA does not police the content of information disseminated, does not limit the publication of information or advocacy materials, and does not restrict an organization’s ability to operate.”
The U.S. Justice Department, which administers the FARA filings, states that foreign registration “does not inhibit freedom of expression” or “restrict the content of information disseminated.” It merely “requires public disclosure of certain activities and relationships through registration by ‘agents of foreign principals’ with the Justice Department...it requires only registration, labeling of informational materials and broadcasts, and recordkeeping.”
In addition, FARA “does not restrict registrants from operating,” the U.S. Justice Department says. “Other U.S. agents of foreign media entities are currently registered under FARA and continue to operate freely in the United States.”
Membership Rules of the Galleries
The Gallery executive committee’s RT decision invoked its own rules which “require all Gallery members to be bona fide news gatherers and/or reporters whose chief attention is given to—or more than one-half of their earned income derived from—the gathering or reporting of news.” Gallery members must not be employed “by any foreign government or representative thereof” or be “engaged in any lobbying activities.” The Galleries also rely on “additional criteria” set by the Speaker of the House and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration” to approve membership applications.
The chairman of the executive committee did not return calls from Polygraph.info, but on December 8, Gallery executive committee put out a statement on the RT claim that NHK, Japan’s publicly funded TV agency, was also a foreign agent.
“This is not accurate,” said the executive committee, in an e-mailed statement. “The company in question, NHK Cosmomedia America, Inc., is a separate entity that has never been issued credentials by the Congressional Radio-TV Correspondents’ Galleries.”
China Daily is not listed as a credentialed publication by the U.S. Senate Press Gallery, which approves traditional print media. News reports indicate China Daily has filed as a foreign agent, although Reuters reports China People’s Daily has not.
People’s Daily is, in fact, listed on the press gallery Web site as a credentialed organization and as the foreign principal under the title of People's Daily Overseas Edition in a FARA registration record, according to a report from RFE/RL and FARA website.
RFE/RL further reports that the most recent Justice Department compliance record, published in early 2017, listed NHK, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and China Daily.
A search on the FARA website leads to a FARA registration document identifying NHK as a registrant, though it is not clear if that registration remains active.
Finally, the list of members with admission to the daily press galleries as of February 2016 includes NHK, China People’s Daily, and Canadian Broadcasting Corp, though it is unclear if the list is up to date.
To add a complication, a source on background tells Polygraph.info the credentialing rules of the two correspondent organizations vary.
First Amendment experts debate whether the correspondents’ decision on RT constitutes censorship or violates the First Amendment, and whether FARA restricts the operations of media entities designated as foreign agents.
Censorship, First Amendment, and FARA Related Considerations
It is not censorship, says Lata Nott, executive director with the Newseum’s First Amendment Center, “since RT is still free to publish the stories that it wants to publish. It probably doesn’t infringe on the First Amendment—the press galleries aren’t really considered public forums so RT’s freedom of assembly isn’t being violated.”
“Censorship generally means restricting the publication of specific content,” says Gregory Magarian, a professor of law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri. “This situation doesn’t seem to fit that definition,” though he did say it’s possible RT could claim the executive committee violated free speech principles.
“The general public can’t access the press galleries so it’s probably not unconstitutional for RT to be denied access to them as well,” said Nott of the Newseum, who points out the U.S. Supreme Court “has been pretty clear that a media outlet’s right to information isn’t any greater than the general public’s.”
“I would argue that discriminating against RT violated the First Amendment, but I would probably lose,” Magarian agreed. “Courts give the government a lot of latitude to regulate foreign actors. In addition, courts are leery of second-guessing Congress’s control of its own proceedings.”
The experts say while the FARA law, itself, doesn’t sanction a foreign government media company, there appears to be nothing barring the correspondents’ executive committee action.