US-based Russian news outlet registers as foreign agent

US Department of Justice. (Shutterstock)
Updated 18 February 2018
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US-based Russian news outlet registers as foreign agent

WASHINGTON: US-based Russian news outlet RIA Global LLC has registered as a foreign agent with the US Justice Department, the fourth Russian-linked media company to do so since November under pressure from the US government.
RIA Global, which produces content for Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) on Friday, according to filings on the Justice Department’s website.
FARA, an 80-year old law aimed at making the public aware of the source of foreign propoganda, has taken on new importance in recent months amid probes by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and multiple congressional committees into Russian attempts to disrupt the 2016 US presidential election.
On Friday, Mueller disclosed charges against 13 Russians and three Russian companies with a conspiracy to tamper in the election. Those charged included St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency known for its trolling on social media.
Sputnik had flagged in January that the Justice Department would require RIA Global to register under FARA.
RIA Global said in its registration that it retains “independent editorial control” over the shows, newswires and web articles it produces and that it “respectfully disagrees that FARA should apply.”
The registration revealed an intention to promote to some extent the Kremlin’s view. A contract accompanying RIA’s registration includes a provision that essays focused on or involving Russia “must reflect Russia’s stance on the subject and present opinions of Russian experts.”
RIA Global’s customer of record is Federal State Unitary Enterprise Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, the Russian state entity that owns Sputnik and was created by a decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013.
Reston Translator LLC, a Virgina-based radio broadcaster of Sputnik programming, registered as a foreign agent in November, as did T&R Productions, LLC (T&R), a Washington, D.C.-based firm that produces English-language programming for the RT Network, a TV broadcaster funded by the Russian government.
RTTV America, Inc, which previously produced content for RT, registered under FARA in December.
A January 2017 US intelligence report concluded that Russia conducted an influence campaign of hacking and other measures aimed at swinging the 2016 presidential vote to Donald Trump. The report said Sputnik and RT are part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” that contributed to that campaign.
Putin, upset by the pressure on Russian media companies to register under FARA, has retaliated by signing a law that allows the Russian authorities to designate international media outlets as “foreign agents”.


Former BBC presenter Gavin Esler fighting the good fight against fake news

Updated 25 September 2018
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Former BBC presenter Gavin Esler fighting the good fight against fake news

  • Misleading reports and plain lies spread like wildfire in the Internet age. But veteran BBC journalist Gavin Esler wants to fight back — with facts
  • Gavin Esler: Brexit is turning out to be a really really bad meal. We ordered steak and chips and we’ve now got some raw chicken that smells bad

LONDON: From Brexit to Breitbart News and Trump’s tweets, fake news has become very real.
We’re surrounded by it. Whether it’s the size of the crowd at the US president’s inauguration, or at a teenager’s birthday party, we live in a world where exaggerations, distortions and downright lies so often go unchecked. They have almost become the norm.
Gavin Esler, former presenter of the BBC’s flagship political show “Newsnight,” is under no illusion as to the seriousness of the problem.
For him, fake news is not merely something that can skew the public’s opinion and political debates. It can be deadly.
“We’ve never had a political culture where lies being told so shamelessly don’t seem to have any consequences,” he told Arab News in an interview.
“That may have something to do with the technology, but this is people lying to your face and not being punished for it.”
In the Internet age fake news spreads like wildfire — but it is not, of course, a new problem.
Esler — who is now an author and chancellor of the University of Kent in his native UK — points to a controversy that dates back to the 1990s involving a fraudulent medical paper that claimed that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine could lead to autism. The claim was widely reported by the media but eventually discredited — yet led to a drop in vaccination rates and inevitable deaths.
“We are actually talking about children’s lives here,” said Esler. “Fake news can kill people, and I think that’s really really worrying.”
Fake news may take the form of skewed stories in the mainstream media, false posts by dodgy websites, or messages spread between people.
In India, for example, numerous deaths have been attributed to rumors spread among people via WhatsApp. The sharing of gruesome videos and photos of strangers has created mass hysteria in some villages, with mobs having attacked, and sometimes killed, people they do not recognize.
This is an extreme example of what Esler calls the “awful echo chamber of phony news.”
One of Esler’s particular bugbears is the fake news epidemic around the Brexit debate in the UK. Those in favor of leaving the EU famously — yet falsely — claimed that the move would allow additional funding of £350 million ($460 million) a week to the National Health Service.
“I accepted the vote, until I realized just how deceitful the ‘leave’ campaign had been — there were lies, they cheated, the money was used illegally according to the Electoral Commission.
“Brexit is turning out to be a really really bad meal. We ordered steak and chips and we’ve now got some raw chicken that smells bad. And I’m not going to swallow it — and I don’t think other people are going to swallow it either.”
So what can the mainstream media do to fight the scourge of fake news around such divisive political debates?
Aside from scrutinizing the facts, editors should be more wary of bogus or partisan “experts” when seeking commentary on the issues of the day, said Esler.
“What we’ve seen in the last 20 years is a constant denigration of expertise and experts,” he said.
“There are people who appear on television who are paid for by shadowy think tanks whose financing they won’t come clean about.
“If someone appears on television and makes a comment, and we quote that comment, we are being accurate. But are we actually being sensible if we don’t know if that comment is based on any facts whatsoever? It is something that journalists have to be much more aware of.”
Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter also have a responsibility to fight fake news and hate speech — although it might not always be in their best interests to do so, said Esler. “If somebody is driving traffic on Twitter by saying something obnoxious, then that is actually good business for them. So their ability to limit it is limited by their ability to cut their own profits.”
Esler’s first experience as a journalist was at his university newspaper, before working at the Belfast Telegraph in Northern Ireland, and later the BBC.
So if he could turn back the clock, would he still become a journalist given the difficulties of the profession in the fake-news age? Esler said writing is in his blood — but had some words of advice for others looking to enter the media.
“What I do say to our university students who study journalism (is that) if you want to be a journalist because you want to be famous and be on television, that’s possibly not the right career for you.
“But if you are relentlessly curious about just about anything, it might possibly be.”