WASHINGTON - The U.S. ambassador to Russia has attacked Moscow's move toward forcing nine United States government-funded news operations to register as "foreign agents" as "a reach beyond" what the U.S. government did in requiring the Kremlin-funded RT television network to register as such in the United States.
Ambassador Jon Huntsman said during a visit Friday to the Moscow bureau of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the Russian reaction is not "reciprocal at all" and Moscow's move toward regulation of the news agencies, if it is implemented, would make "it virtually impossible for them to operate" in Russia.
WATCH: Ambassador Jon Huntsman
He said the eight-decade-old Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) under which RT has registered as a foreign agent is aimed at promoting transparency, but does not restrict the television network's operation in the United States.
Russia's lower house of parliament approved amendments Wednesday to expand a 2012 law that targets non-governmental organizations, including foreign media. A declaration as a foreign agent would require foreign media to regularly disclose their objectives, full details of finances, funding sources and staffing.
Media outlets also may be required to disclose on their social platforms and internet sites visible in Russia that they are "foreign agents." The amendments also would allow the extrajudicial blocking of websites the Kremlin considers undesirable.
The Russian Justice Ministry said Thursday it had notified the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and seven separate regional outlets active in Russia they could be affected.
In response to a question from VOA, Huntsman said "It isn't at all similar to what we're doing under FARA - it's a reach beyond. And, we just think the principles of free media, in any free society and democracy, are absolutely critical to our strength, health, and well-being. Freedom of speech is part of that. So, that's why I care about the issue. That's why we in the embassy care about the issue. And, it's why we're going to follow the work that is going on in the Duma and the legislation that is being drafted, very very carefully, because we're concerned about it."
The Justice Ministry said the new requirements in Russia were likely to become law "in the near future."
VOA Director Amanda Bennett said last week that if Russia imposes the new restrictions, "We can't say at this time what effect this will have on our news-gathering operations within Russia. All we can say is that Voice of America is, by law, an independent, unbiased, fact-based news organization, and we remain committed to those principles."
RFE/RL President Tom Kent said until the legislation becomes law, "we do not know how the Ministry of Justice will use this law in the context of our work."
Kent said unlike Sputnik and other Russian media operating in the United States, U.S. media outlets operating in Russia do not have access to cable television and radio frequencies.
"Russian media in the U.S. are distributing their programs on American cable television. Sputnik has its own radio frequency in Washington. This means that even at the moment there is no equality," he said.
Serious blow to freedom
The speaker of Russia's lower house, the Duma, said last week that foreign-funded media outlets that refused to register as foreign agents under the proposed legislation would be prohibited from operating in the country.
However, since the law's language is so broad, it potentially could be used to target any foreign media group, especially if it is in conflict with the Kremlin. "We are watching carefully... to see whether it is passed and how it is implemented," said Maria Olson, a spokeswoman at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
The Russian amendments, which Amnesty International said would inflict a "serious blow" to media freedom in Russia if they become law, were approved in response to a U.S. accusation that RT executed a Russian-mandated influence campaign on U.S. citizens during the 2016 presidential election, a charge the media channel denies.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded in early 2017 that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed a campaign to undermine American democracy and help real estate mogul Donald Trump win the presidency. A criminal investigation of the interference is underway in the United States, as are numerous congressional probes.
The foreign registration amendments must next be approved by the Russian Senate and then signed into law by Putin.
RT, which is funded by the Kremlin to provide Russia's perspective on global issues, confirmed last week it met the U.S. Justice Department's deadline by registering as a foreign agent in the United States.
VOA's Daniel Schearf contributed to this report.