TRT’s foreign agent registration in U.S. sparks debate

The OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Désir, expressed concern over the U.S. Department of Justice decision last month to force Turkish public broadcaster TRT to register in the United States as a foreign agent of the Turkish government.

TRT disclosed it was supervised by the Turkish government and publicly funded. The registration requires TRT to regularly submit public financial disclosures in the United States, according to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

“Public broadcasters of authoritarian regimes often function as propaganda arms that smear, intimidate, threaten, and criminalise independent journalists and other critical voices,” said Aykan Erdemir, director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

“Furthermore, these outlets often provide institutional cover for covert lobbying and criminal meddling activities aimed to undermine liberal democracies and incite hate and prejudice,” he told Ahval.

“Theoretically, FARA registration shouldn't change the behaviour of any registrants,” said Casey Michel, a journalist and researcher who covers FARA-related topics, and author of a forthcoming book called “American Kleptocracy”.

“Thanks to First Amendment protections, the ability to broadcast, publish information, and cover assorted developments remains widely protected in the U.S.,” he said. This is one of the primary reasons, Michel said, why Russian state-media outlets such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik were able to broadcast widely within the United States and allowed to peddle a range of conspiracy theories.

Désir, however, tweeted last month that he was concerned by the move to register FARA as a foreign agent, because “FARA registration has a restrictive and negative impact on media freedom and should not apply to media from another OSCE participating state.”

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is the world’s largest security-oriented inter-governmental organisation. Its membership spans North America, Europe, and Asia. In addition to protecting press freedoms, the OSCE addresses issues including arms control, democratisation, and the promotion of human rights.

Serving as the OSCE’s watchdog for violations of press freedoms across the organisation’s member states, Désir previously also criticised the U.S. decision to force RT and Sputnik to register under FARA.

On that occasion, Harry Kamian, the U.S. chargé d’affaires to the OSCE, politely rebuked Désir for his criticism of FARA at a meeting of the organisation’s permanent council.

“I feel obliged to correct what I consider to be a certain false narrative, and that regards media freedom under attack in the United States,” Kamian told the body.

“Russian outlets RT and Sputnik continue to broadcast freely in the United States. FARA simply aims to add transparency by ensuring the U.S. public knows when the source of information is a foreign principal,” he continued.

Registering as foreign agents had little effect on the media organisations concerned, Michel said.

“There are real concerns about impinging on potential First Amendment protections, but it doesn't seem like the behaviour of any of these outlets, including RT and Sputnik, has changed since registering with FARA,” Michel said.

FARA was enacted in 1938 to combat the spread of Nazi and other fascist propaganda coming into the United States. It was used sparingly until recent years, but is becoming an increasingly popular tool used by U.S. officials looking to address malign foreign influence.

The Mueller investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. election uncovered the failure of several former associates of President Donald Trump to register as foreign agents, including his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who admitted to lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government without registering. Since then, there has been an uptick in FARA enforcement.

Critics of the law, like Désir, say it is too vague, leading to assaults on the freedom of the press and apprehension that it could be used to require some non-profit organisations to register as foreign agents regardless of whether or not their work actually benefits a foreign power.

Hotly debated among democracy and human rights advocates, others see FARA as an important, if imperfect, mechanism for increasing the transparency of disguised political activities that can be hard to detect.

“FARA remains one of the U.S.'s, and the world's, best tools for transparency within foreign-funded influence operations. The more enforcement, the better,” Michel said.

Erdemir said Désir’s “criticism of TRT and RT’s FARA registrations should have also mentioned how these very outlets have played a central role in undermining the space for freedom of the media in their own countries.”

Few critics disagree with the impulse to use FARA to uncover opaque efforts by foreign governments to undermine U.S. democracy, but they are worried that the increasing enforcement actions may lead to abuses of the law.

Nick Robinson, a legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, wrote in Foreign Policy last July that, “the law has a history of being weaponised by the U.S. government and by politicians to target political opponents.”

“FARA is so poorly written, and the stigma of being labelled a foreign agent so great, that just increasing enforcement without reforming the underlying law is likely to lead to confusion and abuse,” Robinson wrote.

If amendments are made to the law that help target it primarily on indisputable foreign agents influencing American democracy, Robinson argued it would be both easier and less risky to ramp up enforcement.

Reforms could help clear up continued debate about specific FARA cases like TRT’s registration and, more importantly, reduce the potential for harm to legitimate organisations and individuals caused by politically motivated investigations in the United States.

“The OSCE's criticisms are logical, straight-forward, and clearly made in good-faith – and very much worth keeping in mind,” Michel said. “There's no easy answer, but I'd prefer the DOJ err on the side of enforcement and transparency for foreign-funded entities targeting American audiences, rather than the other way around.”


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.