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Senators Press Justice Department on Chinese State Media Outlets Registering as Foreign Agents

If Russian outlets have to file, lawmakers ask, why not Chinese ones?

Sen. Patrick Leahy greets Sen. Marco Rubio on his first day back in Congress after suspending his presidential campaign, in Washington on March 17, 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Patrick Leahy greets Sen. Marco Rubio on his first day back in Congress after suspending his presidential campaign, in Washington on March 17, 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan group of senators is pressing the Justice Department to examine why Chinese state media outlets operating in the United States have not registered as foreign agents.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, seven senators led by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) are asking whether the Justice Department has examined if Chinese state-controlled media outlets fall under the reporting requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.

The letter comes on the heels of a December article in Foreign Policy on Beijing’s foreign media operations, revealing that the American division of CCTV — China’s state broadcaster — has not registered as a foreign agent, even as the Justice Department has asked the Russian news outlets RT and Sputnik to file under the act.

“If the Department assesses that the [People’s Republic of China] media organizations do not incur reporting requirements under FARA similar to those of U.S.-based affiliates of RT and Sputnik, please state why,” the letter says.

In November, RT, the Kremlin-funded news outlet, registered under FARA after it was identified by the U.S. intelligence community as a key distributor of Russian propaganda in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. In a January 2017 report, U.S. intelligence agencies said RT was a key player as part of the Kremlin’s interference in the election campaign and spread news stories boosting then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The scrutiny of RT and other Kremlin-affiliated outlets has led to a renewed interest in Washington in getting state-controlled news outlets to register as foreign agents.

First enacted in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda in the United States, FARA provides basic disclosure requirements for lobbyists and media outlets working on behalf of foreign governments. The legislation is designed to provide Americans with information about who is attempting to influence U.S. politics and provides no concrete restrictions on state media outlets’ operations.

FARA also provides a carve-out for editorially independent state-backed outlets, such as the BBC.

Rather than prosecute violators of the law, the Justice Department has historically sought to bring violators into compliance with the act by voluntarily registering as foreign agents. Tuesday’s letter asks for information about whether the Justice Department believes outlets including CCTV, the Xinhua news service, and China Daily fall under FARA’s requirement, which says media directed, controlled, or financed by a foreign government must register as foreign agents.

The other signatories of the letter include Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The Justice Department did not answer questions on Tuesday about the letter but told FP in December that it is actively working to enforce the law.

“When we learn any person or organization — including a media organization and regardless of any particular nationality — is engaged in activities within the scope of the statute, the Department will take necessary and appropriate measures to ensure compliance with the law,” Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in December.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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