Russia’s RT television network is off the air in the Washington, D.C., area, one of the channel’s most coveted markets in the United States.
The Kremlin-backed English language news channel remain on satellite, but two Washington-area stations that carry it are suspending operations at midnight Saturday, prompting local cable operators to drop the channel.
MHz Networks, a Virginia-based distributor of international programming in the United States that broadcast RT and other foreign news channels on the two stations, said it was ending distribution in the wake of the station operator’s decision to auction off their licenses.
As a result, Washington-area cable operators such as Comcast and Cox Communications, which are legally required to carry channels with “must-carry rights,” are dropping them.
“We’re dropping all of them,” Frederick Thomas, MHz Networks founder and CEO, told VOA, referring to the international news channels. “We’re not carrying them because we don’t have access to a broadcast license after midnight March 31st.”
In a statement emailed to VOA, T&R Productions, RT's U.S. arm, said the channel had been taken off the air in early February but it blamed the move on the Justice Department.
“Although we are not at liberty to disclose the details, we know that the reason for this was linked to RT’s forced registration as a 'foreign agent' in the U.S." the statement said.
Last year, the Justice Department directed T&R Productions to register as a foreign agent despite the company's protest that it was not obligated to do so under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Under FARA, persons acting as agents of foreign governments or foreign political parties must register with the Justice Department and provide periodic disclosure of their activities.
Three other Russian-linked media companies — RTTV America, Reston Translator LLC and RIA Global LLC — were later required to register under FARA.
"It is highly disappointing that despite assurances that FARA status would not impact RT’s reporting and broadcasting capabilities, the registration in fact has placed undue burden on multiple areas of RT operations, and pressure on our partners as well, thus unequivocally demonstrating that the spirit of the FARA law is discriminatory even if the letter of that law technically isn’t," the T&R statement said.
Thomas insisted that his decision to drop the foreign news channels, however, had “nothing to do with politics” or the Justice Department’s scrutiny of foreign news distributors and broadcasters.
“The reason we’re getting out of the channel is related to a change in technology and TV business,” Thomas said. “The FARA thing is very coincidental to the entire thing.”
VOA reached out to the Justice Department but did not receive a response.
Formerly Russia Today
RT, formerly known as Russia Today, has struggled to get on cable in the United States. Washington was one of a couple of metropolitan areas in the nation where the channel was available on cable, Thomas said.
The broadcaster has come under increased scrutiny since last January when U.S. intelligence agencies concluded the channel and RT and Sputnik had been used as part of a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Thomas said he initiated talks with the Justice Department last year to find out whether his company was required to register as a foreign agent because of its distribution of the international news channels. Justice Department lawyers indicated they were, Thomas said.
“The way I read it, and our discussions have said as much, the concept is if you are a distributor of that news content, as it’s been explained to me, you need to register,” Thomas said.
Registering as foreign agent
While lobbyists and lawyers working for foreign governments routinely register with the Justice Department, no American distributor of foreign news content is known to have filed paperwork under FARA.
But that may change as the Justice Department takes an increasingly expansive view of FARA.
“It is possible that a distributor might be subject to FARA,” said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a FARA expert and a partner at the Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock law firm in Washington.
“The key issues for DOJ here would be the nature of control and funding by RT or other foreign governments,” Rosenstein said. “It would be unusual to go after a passive conduit for content,” such as a website for allowing paid ads without any government control.
However, “it’s certainly within the realm of possibility for DOJ to find a case where registration is appropriate, and certainly appropriate for DOJ to make inquiries into government control over the process to determine if registration is warranted,” Rosenstein said.
While MHz Networks will no longer be carrying RT, it will continue to air three hours daily of French, German and Chinese government-funded news content on a different channel, MHz Worldview, potentially leaving it subject to FARA registration.
But Thomas said he did not see the need for registration.
“We’re going argue that three hours a day shouldn’t necessitate us having to doing all of this,” he said.
Current, "a nonprofit news service for and about public media in the U.S.," was first to report on RT going dark on local cable systems in the nation's capital.