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Media Russia USA China Journalists Espionage

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Journalists caught in crossfire of US- Russia 'foreign agent' tit-for-tat war

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Russia's State Duma Reuters

Russian MPs on Tuesday approved amendments to legislation to oblige foreign media outlets to register as "foreign agents", a measure they previously applied to NGOs. Meanwhile, in a report published on Tuesday, a report to the US Congress suggested that Chinese journalists working on US soil be registered as foreign agents as well.


The foreign agent issue reflects the growing tension between the US and Russia and could also damage Washington's relations with Beijing.

Rights campaigners are angry about the Russian decision, too.

“Our first reaction is indignation, as we condemn this move in the strongest terms,” says Alexander Artemyev, of Amnesty International’s Moscow office.

“We do consider it discriminatory, we consider it an attack on the free media, and an attack on the freedom of expression. And its consequences can be harmful both for the media in Russia and for Russian society.”

Russia could not afford to be living in a world where it is being demonized and not react to it
"Foreign Agent" law hits US Russia ties 15/11/2017 Listen

But, in fact, the first country to ever implement a Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) was the US.

That was passed in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda on the eve of World War II.

In 2012 the Kremlin adopted the idea, translating many of the articles in the US law and imposing them on NGOs in Russia that receive foreign funding.

Police later raided offices and the confiscation of documents from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Russian organisations such as the Golos Association and Memorial.

Russia Today accused of Kremlin propaganda

But the US also uses the law in the amended form in which it survives to this day.

On 13 November it put the Russia Today (RT) TV station, which is accused of having close links to the Kremlin, on the list of media that must register as foreign agents.

US intelligence agencies said in a report in January that RT is “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” and contributed to what they perceived as the Kremlin interference in last year’s presidential election. Russian analysts say that Moscow changing its law to apply to media organisations is a reaction to this.

“Russia could not afford to be living in a world where it is being demonised and not react to it,” says Dmitry Babich who works for Rossiya Sevodnya, the Russian news agency created by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014, which incorporates the Ria Novosti news agency and the multimedia platform Sputnik.

“It was not Russia that started this descent into demonisation, into paranoia," Babich commented. "The American media have been talking about Russian meddling in the elections for more than a year now.

“What we are seeing now is a very dangerous process in the US, it is a destruction of institutions. And the problem is that the Americans are not discussing the destruction of their institutions, they are discussing the Russians and their activities,."

Chinese journalists under US spotlight

On 14 November the US's China Economic and Security Review Commission said in a report to the Congress that the number of Chinese media correspondents in the US is growing fast.

It singled out the official Xinhua News Agency and accused Chinese journalists of gathering information to produce classified reports at home.

But, say analysts, this is a miscalculation by US President Donald Trump.

“Many of the Xinhua [New China News] Agency journalists do report to the [Chinese Ministry of] State Security, says Sinologist Jean-Philippe Béja, of the France's National Centre for Scientific Research.

“But to say that all the Chinese journalists are agents is just another provocation by Trump.

"Putin is the one who required foreign NGOs to register as foreign agents and I guess Mr Trump is imitating his mentor, Vladimir Putin."

Chinese work for state organisations, Béja says, but that does not make them all agents.

"There are agents among Chinese journalists. As I guess there are agents amongst any journalists in the world."

But Beijing may react in kind.

"What will very possibly be the result is that foreign journalists who are already considered as foreign agents by the Chinese authorities, will be also labelled 'foreign agents',” Béja points out. And that would result in even more surveillance of China-based foreign correspondents than is currently the case.