After Facebook revealed a Russian company with connections to the Kremlin purchased $100,000 dollars worth of ads during the 2016 presidential election, it is very clear that Russian propaganda is getting in front of Americans. The FBI thinks it might be close to uncovering another way as well. On Monday the Bureau opened an investigation into Sputnik, a Russian-owned news agency, to determine “whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).”
The investigation appears to center on whether Sputnik should be covered by the foreign agents registration law, a 1938 act passed by Congress to combat Nazi propaganda. The law mandates that foreign entities seeking to influence American public opinion and engage in lobbying must file detailed reports with the Justice Department on their funding and operations. If the Justice Department concludes that Sputnik is covered by the law, its executives in the U.S. could face criminal charges and fines, while the news agency’s reports would have to be explicitly labeled as foreign propaganda rather than presented as news.
As part of its investigation, the FBI has interviewed Andrew Feinberg, a former Sputnik White House correspondent who was fired in May. He turned over a thumb drive containing relevant emails and documents that may connect the news agency to what U.S. officials believe is an ongoing “influence campaign” by Russia. In the, FBI and other Justice Department officials tried to discern how Sputnik operated, where its funding came from, and whether editorial coverage choices where determined by the Kremlin.
Sputnik is owned by a Russian government media operation directed by Dmitri Kiselyov, “a belligerent television broadcaster who is known as Putin’s ‘personal propagandist.'” However, Sputnik’s U.S. editor in chief, Mindia Gavasheli — who was unaware of the FBI’s investigation — denied they were anything other than a news organization and said calls for Sputnik to register under FARA were “hysteria.”
Joseph John Fionda, another fired Sputnik staffer, is writing a detailed “packet” for the Justice Department about getting fired for asserting the Russian military in Syria was fighting anti-Assad rebels instead of ISIS. He also claims an article about prisoners being repatriated from Guantanamo Bay was “censored” to omit references to six prisoners who were immediately imprisoned upon their return to Russia. Fionda says he was fired by Gavasheli after refusing to ask a hacker for the hacked emails of then-CIA director John Brennan:
“I refused because I believed this was a solicitation to espionage,” Fionda wrote.
When he refused the order, Fionda wrote that Gavasheli told him to “get the f— out of my office” and then fired him. Gavasheli, in his interview with Yahoo News, denied this and said Fionda was fired after falsely claiming his father was ill in order to take time off from work.
Whether or not Sputnik is a bona fide propaganda operation remains to be seen. Even so, there’s no denying the organization has been trying to reach more people. They recently launched an all-talk FM radio station in Washington D.C.
(Via Yahoo News)