WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) - The Department of Justice is pressing a federal judge to make a South Florida radio-broadcasting company register as a foreign agent for selling round-the-clock airtime to a Russian government-owned media outlet.
In Florida federal court, the Justice Department’s National Security Division is at odds with RM Broadcasting over the company's refusal to register as a foreign agent in connection with the airing of radio shows from the Russia-owned Rossiya Segodnya.
The programs at issue are broadcast on Washington, D.C. station WZHF 1390 by Rossiya Segodnya's branch Sputnik International, according to the court documents. Sputnik announced its expansion to WZHF in late 2017, with a press release headlined, "All We Hear is Radio Sputnik: Russians Invade 1390 AM."
RM Broadcasting claims it simply sold airtime to Rossiya Segodnya, and that it was never under the direction of the Russian media group. RM points to a clause in its contract with the Russian outlet that states: "Nothing in this agreement is intended to or shall operate to create a partnership between the parties or authorize either party to act as an agent for the other."
RM initiated the federal court case in October, seeking relief from the Department of Justice's demands that it register under FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938.
The company describes itself as a Florida broadcasting firm owned by a Bronx-raised broadcast industry veteran. It says its business model involves buying up and reselling airtime to clients.
RM Broadcasting and Rossiya Segodnya have a strictly "commercial contractual relationship that does not form any agency relationship whatsoever,” the company said in its lawsuit for declaratory relief.
But the Department of Justice said Monday that if companies like RM Broadcasting are not required to register, Russia and other countries would be able to sidestep federal law requiring disclosure statements to accompany foreign government-controlled broadcasts in the U.S. Moreover, the department claims, foreign countries would be able to quietly contract their way around U.S. restrictions on foreign ownership of broadcast licenses.
"Were RM Broadcasting not required to register, there would be no U.S. entity required to register under FARA in connection with Radio Sputnik, and Rossiya Segodnya, the Russian Federation, and other foreign principals could subvert FARA' s public disclosure requirements, as well as statutory limitations on foreign ownership of broadcasting facilities, simply by contracting broadcasting responsibilities to U.S. entities," the department’s New Year's Eve counterclaim states.
Though the Sputnik broadcasts already include statements that programming is provided by "international news agency Rossiya Segodnya," Justice Department attorneys say that's not enough. Under FARA, they claim, the broadcasts need to contain "a conspicuous statement that the materials are distributed ... on behalf of the foreign principal, and that additional information is on file with the Department of Justice."
If RM Broadcasting is found to be subject to the registration requirements, the company will have to make financial disclosures, release its service agreement with Rossiya Segodnya, and submit copies of material broadcast on behalf of Rossiya Segodnya, according to the court documents.
RM says that the publication of the payment terms in its contract with the Russian outlet could hurt its business. The company claims the federal government’s position "fails to take into account that FARA requires that an agent's activities be under the actual direction and control of a foreign principal."
The Justice Department maintains that RM Broadcasting meets the definition of an "information-service employee" of a foreign government under FARA.
The law garnered national media attention and triggered a wave of new foreign-agent filings after President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort was charged with, among a slew of other counts, failing to register as a foreign agent of Ukraine per FARA requirements.
The act provides for civil injunctive relief and criminal penalties for violations, though no criminal charges are involved in RM Broadcasting's case in the Southern District of Florida.
For the purposes of lobbying, political activity and other covered conduct, FARA defines the term "foreign agent" in general as "any person who acts as an agent, representative, employee, or servant, or any person who acts in any other capacity at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal" or of foreign principal's representatives.