Russia plans retaliation against US media as row over RT escalates

  • Moscow drafting tit-for-tat measures to place severe restrictions on US media
  • US orders RT to register as ‘foreign agent’ or have its bank accounts frozen

Russia’s parliament has begun drafting tit-for-tat measures that would place severe restrictions on some US media outlets operating in the country, in a move that looks likely to plunge US-Russia relations to a new low.

The announcement on Friday came shortly after the Kremlin-funded international news channel RT said it had been ordered by the US Department of Justice to register as a “foreign agent” by Monday or have its bank accounts frozen.

US intelligence agencies have accused RT of attempting to interfere with the US election.

Russian president Vladimir Putin had previously warned that Russia would take retaliatory steps if RT, formerly known as Russia Today, was targeted by US authorities.

The Russian parliamentary speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, said MPs had been tasked with drafting amendments to Russia’s own law on foreign agents to include “biased” media organisations that “oppose” Russia’s political system.

He said the amendments could be approved in their third and final reading as earlier as next Friday. “What the US authorities are doing today is an infringement of fundamental civil rights, of freedom of speech,” said Volodin.

Senator Alexei Pushkov, who chairs the upper house of parliament’s media policy committee, said the measures would initially target CNN, the Voice of America, and Radio Liberty.

However, Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, did not rule out that the updated law could also result in the expulsion of Moscow-based correspondents from US newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post.

“We have received so many appeals from our citizens demanding that we do something about American media outlets,” Zakharova told state television.

Russia’s controversial law on foreign agents, approved by Putin in 2012, has previously been used to stifle the work of organisations funded from abroad and engaged in what Russia loosely terms “political activity.”

Organisations targeted by the law are subject to increased tax inspections, and are obliged to identify themselves in Russia as “foreign agents” – a term associated by most Russians with espionage.

Russian telecoms watchdog Roskomnadzor also proposed it be granted powers to block the websites of foreign media outlets and non-governmental organisations without a court order.

Friday’s developments come after weeks of tensions between Moscow and Washington over RT.

Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, said on Friday the TV channel would comply with the US demands that it register as a foreign agent, because the television’s channel’s director of operations in the United States could be arrested if it did not.

“Can you smell the scent of freedom?” she wrote on Twitter. She said RT would appeal the US Department of Justice ruling in court.

The US Foreign Agent Registration Act, which dates from 1938, usually affects lawyers and lobby groups representing the interests of foreign states. It is rarely applied to media outlets.

The spiralling US-Russia media row is proving troubling for some American journalists based in Moscow.

“This is a cynical campaign to rein in press freedoms and it’s extremely distracting to end up as hostages in this conflict,” one US journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Guardian.

The move comes four months before Russian presidential elections in which Putin is expected to win a fourth term of office. Putin on Thursday accused the United States of plotting to meddle in next March’s vote.


Marc Bennetts in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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