Justice Department Demands Radio Station Be Ordered to Register As Russian Agent

Washington DC - Getty - H 2018
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On New Year's Eve, the U.S. Department of Justice ratcheted up the legal war with the owner of a Washington, D.C., radio station that is broadcasting Sputnik International. In Florida federal court, the DOJ now demands injunctive relief requiring RM Broadcasting to register as a foreign agent of the Russian government.

The dispute amounts to the first significant legal test after the U.S. government decided to get tough on foreign propaganda in the wake of an influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election. After passage of the John S. McCain Defense Authorization Act, which went into effect this past August, the Justice Department sent letters to several television and radio stations with foreign ties with word of new foreign registration obligations. Most of those outlets, including Russia Today, complied with the directive even amid vociferous objection. Vladimir Putin's Russia then in kind labeled Voice of America and eight other U.S.-backed news stations as "foreign agents," while also threatening to retaliate against CNN and other prominent America-based outlets.

One individual has gone to court over the registration requirements.

Arnold Ferolito, a 76-year-old American who worked in the television industry for decades, says he came out of retirement to found RM Broadcasting.

His company has an FCC license, but has resold airtime for WZHF 1390 AM in Washington, D.C., to Rossiya Segodnya, the Russian Federation government-owned news agency that operates Sputnik.

In a complaint filed Oct. 19, RM Broadcasting maintains it doesn't have "any kind of joint venture relationship whatsoever" with Russian interests and that "this commercial transaction in no way created an agency relationship."

He thus argues that registration as a foreign agent is not required. If he's wrong, RM Broadcasting won't only have to register, it would be required to give listeners a more fulsome station identification as well as submit documentation regarding its financing and other contracting.

The Justice Department filed counterclaims Dec. 31.

The U.S. government alleges that Rossiya Segodnya "has complete control over the contents" of RM's station through a "Services Agreement" and is disseminating information to U.S. audiences "to advance Russian interests." The counterclaim also points to the way that RM is obligated to perform maintenance work on broadcasting equipment so that Sputnik content reaches as broad an audience as possible.

DOJ lawyers are also looking to ensure that foreign governments can't evade registration requirements through American middlemen.

According to the U.S. government's court papers, "RM Broadcasting is the only U.S. entity responsible to its foreign principals for broadcasting those foreign principal's content in the United States. Were RM Broadcasting not required to register, there would be no U.S. entity required to register under FARA in connection with Radio Sputnik, and Rossiya Segodnya, the Russian Federation, and other foreign principals could subvert FARA's public disclosure requirements, as well as statutory limitations on foreign ownership of broadcasting facilities, simply by contracting broadcasting responsibilities to U.S. entities."