U.S., Russia Spar Over Kremlin-Funded News Outlet

MOSCOW, RUSSIA -A general view of Red square and Kremlin-Getty-H 2016
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Russian authorities hint at investigations of U.S. journalists working in the country in the wake of the FBI questioning of a former correspondent with Sputnik.

On Sept.19, three Democratic lawmakers urged the Federal Communications Commission to investigate if the Kremlin-funded news site and radio station Sputnik broke government regulations by broadcasting propaganda. The move came as more proof that diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Russia have spilled over into the media industry. 

"In Washington, D.C., listeners need only tune their radios to 105.5 FM to hear the Russian government’s effort to influence U.S. policy," reads a statement signed by Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Representatives Anna Eshoo (Dem-CA) and Mike Doyle (Dem-PA).

Last week, the FBI questioned Andrew Feinberg, Sputnik's former White House correspondent as part of a probe into whether the news outlet, which is part of the same Kremlin-funded media group as television network Russia Today, was involved in pro-Russian propaganda in the U.S.

Simultaneously, the U.S. Justice Department ruled that Russia Today's U.S. servicing company needs to register as a foreign agent.

Both Sputnik and Russia Today are seen as the Kremlin’s international propaganda mouthpieces, even though they claim to supply "objective journalism" and "alternative viewpoints" instead. Earlier this year, Russia Today and Sputnik were banned from covering the presidential campaign of Emmanuel Macron, who said that the two outlets "act not like media, but like agents of influence and propaganda."

"There is no doubt that Russia will respond to the FBI's investigation in a similar way and work of U.S. journalists in Moscow will be scrutinized," Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Sputnik and Russia Today, was quoted as saying by Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

"This is more than disgusting," she went on to say. "Freedom of expression is turning in its grave. It was killed by those who invented it."

The Kremlin's reaction was in the same vein.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by RIA Novosti saying that the FBI's questioning of Feinberg testified to "problems with censorship and restrictions of the press" in the U.S.

"This raises our concerns," he added.

Russian experts say that the conflict, which is developing against the backdrop of the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the U.S. in decades and a series of diplomatic rows, may also lead mutual restrictions in the media.

Relations between Russia and U.S. deteriorated earlier this year when a bill introducing new sanctions against Russia was passed. Previously, Russia had hoped that the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president would help to improve mutual ties. The ongoing investigation into Russia's possible meddling with last year's presidential election has also done little to restore trust between the two nations.

After the introduction of new sanctions against Russia, the U.S. authorities have all legal grounds to conduct all kinds of investigations aimed at discovering Russian propaganda, Viktoria Zhuravleva, head of the U.S. sector of the North American Research Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Economics and International Relations, told The Hollywood Reporter.

"The media, as the main instrument of external influence for any state, unavoidably becomes the focus of this process," she went on to say. "So, more questioning, blocking of access and broadcast and expulsion [of Russian] correspondents [from the United States] are likely."