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Foreign Agents Designation Causes Media Cold War

Most nations have some form of state media.

These days, it’s pretty easy for Americans to access any number of foreign state media outlets, and many of them have journalists covering US affairs. Some of those journalists must register as “foreign agents” with the US government. But others don’t have to—a distinction that has more to do with geopolitics than with journalism.

The Trump administration mandated “five Chinese state-run media organizations to register their personnel and property with the US government”: Xinhua News AgencyChina Global Television NetworkChina Radio International and the parent companies of the China Daily and People’s Daily newspapers (Politico2/18/20). The administration also “limited to 100 the number of Chinese citizens who may work in the United States” for those organizations (New York Times3/2/20).

The privately owned Hong Kong newspaper Sing Tao was forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act because it “is viewed as a pro-Beijing outlet” (South China Morning Post8/26/21). US state media organ Radio Free Asia (8/27/21) trumpeted the “foreign agent” designation for Sing Tao, quoting one Hong Kong journalist saying that it is “a fairly open secret that it is an underground CCP [Chinese Communist Party] organization.”

Russia’s RT registered in 2017, as US intelligence agencies claimed it “contributed to the Kremlin’s campaign to interfere with [the 2016] presidential election in favor” of Donald Trump (Reuters11/13/17). Qatari-owned Al Jazeera was forced to register (New York Times9/15/20) because content “designed to influence American perceptions of a domestic policy issue or a foreign nation’s activities or its leadership qualifies as ‘political activities,’” according to one US official. Relations between Qatar and the US are complex, as they had strained during the Trump administration (NBC, 6/9/17) and have improved under President Joe Biden (NBC9/13/21), although the oil-rich nation is accused of funding Palestinian terror operations, adding to tensions (Washington Post12/15/20Jerusalem Post2/17/22).

But other state-owned outlets, like the BBCCBC and Deutsche Welle, do not register as foreign agents in the US. Clearly, the standard is that the “foreign agent” label applies when an outlet’s government owner has rocky relations with Washington. And for many press advocates, that’s causing problems.

Not Just Symbolic

The designation isn’t just symbolic: Through FARA enforcement, the government can keep a closer eye on these outlets’ activities. US state media network Voice of America (5/12/21) reported that CGTN “spent more than $50 million on its US operations last year, accounting for nearly 80% of total Chinese spending on influencing US public opinion and policy,” while China Daily “reported more than $3 million in spending last year, including expenses related to advertising in American newspapers.”

VoA called this a “propaganda spending spree,” as China wanted to “burnish its global image,” but even if that’s true, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting the US does the same thing. The US has looked to invest half a billion dollars into media organizations that counter the Chinese narrative (American Prospect2/9/22), causing the South China Morning Post (4/28/21) to scoff: “When the Chinese do it, it’s propaganda. When Washington does it, it’s ‘investing in our values.’” Xinhua (2/23/22) went further, saying that America’s move to fund journalism in Asia for political purposes makes the world “wonder how the self-styled ‘beacon of press freedom’ dares to openly manipulate media in an attempt to squeeze China out of what it calls a ‘Great Power Competition.’”

In a statement to the Department of Justice concerning the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the Committee to Protect Journalists (2/11/22) noted that not all state-owned media outlets are the same, but “the glaring difference in the way these media outlets are treated under FARA raises questions about the fairness of its implementation.” CPJ called for “the end of compelling media outlets to register, which impacts their operations and their ability to engage in journalism freely.”

It went on:

The inconsistent application of FARA has created the appearance that the act is a foreign policy tool, and has provided justification for foreign governments to use similar labeling against news organizations that receive funding from within the United States. Countries including Hungary, Israel, Russia and Ukraine have all cited the US use of FARA when they passed legislation requiring civil society organizations to register with the government.

Even the Council on Foreign Relations (8/24/20), which wields enormous pressure on US foreign policy and press coverage of foreign affairs, sees a problem, saying that “such tough measures against Chinese state media could backfire.” By using FARA against these outlets, the US government “potentially overstates the influence of China’s state media outlets, and rather than modeling an open society, it risks appearing as if it does not care about press freedom.”

Politicized Applications

Indeed, the choice by these countries to register each other’s journalists is a part of a brewing media cold war. Russia acted in kind when it decided to list journalists working there as foreign agents (NPR7/31/21Guardian9/11/21), and Russia added to its foreign agents list Bellingcat, which is highly critical of Russia, and the US-run Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is specifically meant to counter Russian-government narratives in Eastern Europe (RFE/RL10/9/21).

The Chinese government showed its might during these escalating tensions when it expelled New York TimesWall Street Journal and Washington Post journalists and “demanded that those outlets, as well as the Voice of America and Time magazine, provide the Chinese government with detailed information about their operations” (New York Times3/17/20). Both countries eventually eased “restrictions on access for journalists from each other’s countries” (Reuters11/16/21), but foreign reporters continue to complain of stifling working conditions in China (Wall  Street Journal1/30/22CNN1/31/22). China is ranked 177th on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, beating out North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan.

Not all state broadcasters are the same, but even the venerated BBC, whose journalists do not have to register under FARA in the US, isn’t free from the idea that it works in the service of the state.

One study by Cardiff University researchers, looking at “BBC news coverage from 2007 and 2012, concluded that conservative opinions received more airtime than progressive ones” (The Week11/26/21). Journalist Peter Oborne (Guardian12/3/19) sees the BBC not as a partisan news agency, but as one that favors the state generally: “The BBC does not have a party political bias: It is biased towards the government of the day,” he said. And as one former BBC journalist put it, staffers at the broadcaster’s BBC Monitoring program, which collects and re-reports from global media, historically were “working for…the Ministry of Defense,” specifically for the purposes of foreign intelligence (Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 10/26/13).

This isn’t an argument for forcing the BBC to register under FARA. It is an argument that the application of FARA to foreign journalists is politicized and should be stopped, as it only makes it harder for all journalists to do their jobs.

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