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U.S. Officials Demand Al Jazeera Register as Propaganda ‘Agent’

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate whether Al Jazeera, the news outlet connected to the Qatari government, should register with the Justice Department as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). This will have broad implications for the First Amendment, our access to dissenting opinions, and even how the rest of the world views us.

The lawmakers include Representatives Josh Gottheimer, (D-NJ), Lee Zeldin (R-NY), and 16 other House members. Senator Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, also signed the letter to Sessions. The letter claims [1] Al Jazeera “directly undermines American interests” and broadcasts “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel” material. If forced to register, Al Jazeera would join [2] Russian outlets RT and Radio Sputnik, Japan’s Cosmomedia, the Korean Broadcasting System, and China Daily as acknowledged foreign state propaganda outlets. The DOJ has also been asked [3] to look into a range of other Chinese media.

Ironically, the bipartisan request to force Al Jazeera to register comes amid a controversy [4] over the network’s filming of a documentary critical of pro-Israel lobbying in the United States. For that exposé, the network used an undercover operative to secure footage revealing possibly illegal interactions between advocacy groups and lawmakers.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act [5] was never intended to regulate journalism. In fact, the legislation includes finely worded exemptions [6] for journalists, scholars, artists, and the like, who are not required to announce themselves as “agents of a foreign principal” regardless of what they do. The law was created in 1938 in response to German [7] propaganda, specifically Nazi officials and those they employed who were delivering pacifist speeches in then-neutral America to organize sympathetic German Americans. By requiring those working for the Nazis to register and report their finances and spending, U.S. counterespionage authorities could more easily keep track of their activities.

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FARA doesn’t even prohibit straight up propagandizing, though it does seek to limit the influence of foreign agents by labeling their work, apparently to help out Americans who otherwise would not be able to tell the difference on their own. The law specifically says [6] that “disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.” Indeed, the Atlantic Council claims [8] these actions “do not suppress freedom of speech; instead, it serves the First Amendment by supplementing information available to the public.”

Here’s a use of FARA in line with the law’s original intent: the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, whose job is to lobby Americans on behalf of a foreign government—in this case, to take vacations in Abu Dhabi—is a FARA registrant. That way, when the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority says they have decent beaches you should visit, you know who is up to what. Other typical registrants might include an American lawyer hired by Saudi Arabia to lobby [9] Congress in favor of more arms sales. Being a foreign agent is very legal and very popular with former congresspeople and government bureaucrats; you just need to announce who your employer is.

But FARA can also serve a more nefarious purpose: as a catch-22 prosecution [10] (a “compliance statute”) for those the U.S. wants to declare as foreign agents but who resist. Once the feds want to taint you as a foreign agent, you either agree and register or face jail time.

That is what happened in the cases of RT and Radio Sputnik. Following the 2016 election, frightened officials demanded that the Russian organizations register as propaganda agents. RT’s editor-in-chief maintained her network was an independent news outlet, but chose [10] to comply rather than face criminal proceedings, adding “we congratulate the American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it.” Critics then swung [11] RT’s snarky comment on free speech into “proof” that it unfairly criticizes America.

The use of FARA to allow the government to declare which foreign media outlets produce “news” and which produce “fake news” and propaganda is “a shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades,” said [12] the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We’re uncomfortable with governments’ deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.”

As the Justice Department wields its FARA weapon, here’s what Al Jazeera’s journalists could face.

Designation under FARA requires that a media outlet label its reporting “with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal”: in other words, a nutritional label for journalism. It also means the outlet must open its finances to the Department of Justice. It means Americans who choose to watch that media, or participate in its talk shows, or who work legally for those outlets, open themselves to accusations of “treason” (one political staffer was fired [13] after being interviewed by Radio Sputnik). It adds credence to the muddy cries of “fake news” used to shut out dissenting opinions. It gives credibility to groups like PropOrNot [14], which lists websites it “determines [15]” are Russian propaganda, and Hamilton 68 [16], which does the same for Twitter.

Subjecting journalists to FARA sends a message about America. It encourages other governments to impose their own restrictions (Russia has already passed a law requiring outlets like CNN to register as foreign agents). It uses the full authority of the American government to declare that Al Jazeera, a network that reaches 310 million people in more than 160 countries, has no place within a free press because its broadcasts are “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel.” In the specific case of Al Jazeera, it seemingly extends America law to cover anti-Israeli propaganda as well. As with attempts to claim Wikileaks is espionage and not journalism, this particular use of FARA looks to be another instance of laws wielded to harass those with “un-American” opinions.

The employment of FARA to restrict foreign journalists also adds to the growing sense among too many already frightened Americans that our freedoms are being used against us. “The U.S. is at a huge strategic disadvantage when it comes to the New Media Wars because our information environment is so open and rich,” said [11] one former CIA deputy director of intelligence. Perhaps too many dissenting voices isn’t a good idea. The Internet is just too much freedom to responsibly allow. Maybe the government should become more involved in what we say, hear, watch, and read, as Facebook and Twitter (which banned RT from advertising) do now—you know, for our own protection. Our open society is a vulnerability, not a strength.

The roots of our most basic rights can be found in the freedom of the press written into the First Amendment. The press must be unfettered in reporting so citizens can make informed decisions when voting, protesting, and petitioning their government. Government should play no role in designating good journalists from bad, in licensing who can report on or access a broad range of ideas. Sorting out the marketplace of ideas—opposing opinions, bias exposed and hidden—is supposed to be our task as an informed citizenry. We should reclaim that mantle and do the job ourselves.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [17]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [18]: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell [19].

32 Comments (Open | Close)

32 Comments To "U.S. Officials Demand Al Jazeera Register as Propaganda ‘Agent’"

#1 Comment By jk On March 26, 2018 @ 11:49 pm

Disgusting, US MSM and neocon politicians cannot handle a diversity of critical opinions.

One more step toward internet censorship since everyone that is critical of the US is a Russian Troll.

When is AIPAC getting on this registry? Hopefully every country shuts down Voice of America in retaliation or as a “preemptive strikes” which the US likes to do to everyone else.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 27, 2018 @ 3:44 am

It’s ending. Democracy dies in darkness, and it’s corporatist monopoly propagandists like the Washington Post which are making sure the lights are snuffed out.

#3 Comment By wise_pharaoh On March 27, 2018 @ 9:59 am

“The roots of our most basic rights can be found in the freedom of the press written into the First Amendment. The press must be unfettered in reporting so citizens can make informed decisions when voting, protesting, and petitioning their government.”

And yet we have a President that openly chooses sides by promoting Fox news and calling all other outlets like CNN, NBC, etc. fake. You can cut the irony with a knife……..

#4 Comment By Bellicose Bill On March 27, 2018 @ 10:03 am

If you want to know who fears you – find out who is trying to shut you up. If only Bibi and his mob could squelch free speech in the US? Heck! We would then do any war they wanted.

#5 Comment By Tom S. On March 27, 2018 @ 10:12 am

During my time in the IC, we kept Al-Jazeera on the TV feed, so we could get reliable news from the ME. Suggestions to switch the feed to Fox were met with laughter.

#6 Comment By Peter Van Buren On March 27, 2018 @ 10:30 am

Tom S. says:”During my time in the IC, we kept Al-Jazeera on the TV feed, so we could get reliable news from the ME.”

That was also my experience at State, especially in Iraq. AJ often had reporters on the ground who spoke Arabic in places the western media never visited. No source is 100% which is why you need a variety of sources.

#7 Comment By Jack On March 27, 2018 @ 10:51 am

This is ridiculous.

The journalists at Al-Jazeera are actual journalists trying to do a professional job. RT and Fox News are genuine propaganda outlets. Al-Jazeera is not.

#8 Comment By Richard L Harrell On March 27, 2018 @ 10:59 am

Are the Congressmen and Senator mentioned in this article stupid? This is about a media/free speech organization. With their own viewpoint to be sure.
But the scandal is AIPAC, which is nothing except a foreign agent/fifth column, and should have been required to register as such years ago, except for the anti-American Israel Uber Alles, Israel before America hypocrisy of our congress and president. This is disgusting and pure corruption, to the level of high treason.

#9 Comment By Patriot Pete On March 27, 2018 @ 11:15 am

Include the BBC.

#10 Comment By collin On March 27, 2018 @ 11:47 am

Liberal Facism is outta-of-control!!!! I say all cable news with a Muslim investment or 10% or higher should register as a foreign agent. Of course, would that include Fox News. Or does BBC America need to register as an agent?

1) In reality who watches Al Jazzera? It is bizarre channel that is very heavy progressive and an eye to Muslim concerns that don’t always make much sense. Their news sucks and most of the website writers don’t have a good grasp of American politics. (There are a few liberal writers in the states worthwhile like Dean Baker.)
2) I like think of Al Jazzera as a great example of rich people wasting their money. Say what you will about Al Gore, how in the hell did he get $500M for a shrinking market.

#11 Comment By Falcon101 On March 27, 2018 @ 12:17 pm

Have we already forgotten that just last year, the government made it lawful for the news media to be the ministry of Propaganda?

#12 Comment By Will Harrington On March 27, 2018 @ 12:21 pm

wise_pharoah

It’s not irony, it’s a control system based on the false dilemma fallacy. We are only presented with two sides and we are encouraged to support one out of fear that the other will succeed. What nonsense! Yet here we are. Our donor class, the oligarchs, own almost all of our media and they decide the narratives most Americans have access to. No third solutions or dissinsion from the two main narratives are allowed. Meanwhile, it makes little difference whether the Democrats or Republicans actually win as nothing much actually changes. We do not vote for people we agree with, we vote against people we are taught to fear and our political identities are mostly defined by fear. Meanwhile, the donor class keeps profiting on the status quo which allows them to tighten their control of the government and the media.

#13 Comment By Harvey On March 27, 2018 @ 12:28 pm

Al Jazeera IS a propaganda agent. But, then so is CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, etc.

#14 Comment By mr anon On March 27, 2018 @ 12:37 pm

how dare they criticize israel, they should have known better

#15 Comment By Alex Ingrum On March 27, 2018 @ 12:40 pm

Ridiculous. Again, Israel’s interests usurp American freedoms, this time the First Amendment. When will the American public wake up and realize that Congress is bought by Israel and its loyalists?

Al-Jazeera has really good journalism, covering topics in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America that are ignored by the mainstream media. They are committed to reporting on the lives of people who are ignored by the corporations who control the NYT, WaPo, LA Times, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and so on.

Just today, AJ is reporting on the massive evacuations in eastern Ghouta in Syria, on the renewed violence in Kashmir, on poverty in Kenya forcing men to sell their wives into prostitution, and on a 31 year old Jordanian woman breaking the glass ceiling by becoming a host of WWE Arabic.

How are these stories in any way a threat to the U.S.?

#16 Comment By Daniel Baker On March 27, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

No one who watches al-Jazeera for any length of time can deny that it does boadcast anti-American and anti-Semitic material fairly regularly. Sometimes it broadcasts pro-Israel and pro-American material too (I think i twas the first Arab news agency ever to actually show Arabs the Knesset debates) and Arab dictators hate and fear al-Jazeera much more than America does.

But none of that is relevant to whether al-Jazeera’s a foreign agent. The critical question is, does al-Jazeera have editorial independence from the Qatari government? The BBC is government-supported, but it has editorial independence from the UK government, and no one would dream of labeling it as a foreign agent. If al-Jazeera has similar editorial independence, it’s not a foreign agent, no matter how anti-American or anti-Semitic it may. be. If it doesn’t, then it’s a Qatari foreign agent even if everything it broadcasts is innocuous

#17 Comment By Peter Van Buren On March 27, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

“No one who watches al-Jazeera for any length of time can deny that it does broadcast anti-American and anti-Semitic material fairly regularly.”

I wonder if the comment isn’t confusing material that is rightly critical of America, as opposed to “anti-American” material.

Because I think that distinction is often lost.

#18 Comment By Donald On March 27, 2018 @ 1:35 pm

I didn’t see a link to the letter with signatures (it might be there in the article somewhere) so for those curious, here it is–

[20]

#19 Comment By Alex Ingrum On March 27, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

Please someone compile of list of anti-Semitic articles published by Al-Jazeera. I keep seeing this accusation being tossed around with no citations to back it up.

AJ often presents the Palestinian point of view which American media largely ignores. Life is oppressive and often lethal for Palestinians suffering under the Israeli occupation, and AJ does a professional and thorough job of reporting that reality.

Is any criticism of Israel considered anti-Semitic now? Seems like it is, and that is a terrifying development for freedom of speech in this country.

#20 Comment By Jon On March 27, 2018 @ 4:49 pm

Another assault on the Bill of Rights. Anti gun folks want to tear out the second Amendment, and the first amendment is under continuous attack by Israel and AIPAC. The anti BDS rhetoric and statutes, the need for people in Texas to pledge allegiance to Israel by signing a statement that they did not participate in BDS in order to obtain disaster relief. And its all to appease Israel, and AIPAC. Now all this registration of news outlets as foreign agents. This is the old story: when people want to shut you up it’s because you are voicing an inconvenient truth. It should be possible to impeach and remove the entire Congress for violating its oath to protect the Constitution. America is under an Israeli dictatorship impose by Washington on the American people. This is worht of revolution.

#21 Comment By wise_pharaoh On March 27, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

“Ironically, the bipartisan request to force Al Jazeera to register comes amid a controversy over the network’s filming of a documentary critical of pro-Israel lobbying in the United States. For that exposé, the network used an undercover operative to secure footage revealing possibly illegal interactions between advocacy groups and lawmakers.”

But of course there is no political motive to shut Al Jazeera up.

#22 Comment By slow news day On March 27, 2018 @ 6:06 pm

“As with attempts to claim Wikileaks is espionage and not journalism, this particular use of FARA looks to be another instance of laws wielded to harass those with “un-American” opinions.”

When did disliking Israel become “un-American”? Do these congressmen not know any veterans? Do they think veterans are “un-American”? Half the Middle East vets I know loathe Israel. And most regular Americans couldn’t care less if Israel disappeared into the ocean tomorrow – those who happen to know where it is in the first place, of course.

#23 Comment By Captain P On March 27, 2018 @ 6:32 pm

How does being anti-Israel mean that the U.S. should classify a network as a “foreign agent?” MSNBC is 100% anti-Russia – does that make it a foreign agent?

#24 Comment By skipNclair On March 27, 2018 @ 8:14 pm

We should make the same demands of the main stream media.

#25 Comment By Florin On March 27, 2018 @ 8:59 pm

it’s a good article but it is well-settled if not widely appreciated that ‘the press’ in the 1st does not mean journalists of news media, it means the printed word, along with the spoken – speech.

Media corporations do not have more first Amendment rights than a guy printing off flyers in his basement.

#26 Comment By James On March 28, 2018 @ 12:13 am

I am not in favor of the violation of rights at play here, but I have to say, I used to love Al Jazeera, it was a great, very objective source for news, it was top notch journalism. I cancelled my subscription when more and more of their stories were written by too green millennials spouting Marxist propaganda and straight up inaccuracies. I don’t care for the censorship, not at all, but as a news source, they lost their credibility right along with the NYT and even the Christian Science Monitor et. al. I don’t miss them, they chose to sell out, and it’s coming back to bite them. Good riddance.

#27 Comment By wedinakfa On March 28, 2018 @ 12:23 am

Al-jazeera is a tool of the terrorists it never had any ambition to inform but push islamist and regime change agenda and imagine coming out from Qatar that is supposed to be supporting fundamentalist groups and harbors terrorist testified by neighbouring Arab countries other Arab states and what is the USA waiting?

#28 Comment By Nick On March 28, 2018 @ 1:26 am

I have been abroad for the past three weeks. The cable package to my room includes Fox News but not CNN or MSNBC. Some will not believe this, but until the bomber was killed, Al-Jazeera covered the story far more than Fox. Fox was too busy covering jaywalking allegations against Obama, both Clintons, and Pelosi.

#29 Comment By chuckAIPAC On March 28, 2018 @ 1:55 am

Who will Rahm Emanuel fight for in the next war (which country is he loyal too)? Why has the program been shown? Has AJ bowed to the AIPAC master? Why not leak it? Will the U.S/Israel Congre$$ Critters make it illegal to watch, read or listen to it, or be charged, droned, blacklisted etc.? BDS

#30 Comment By No_SoY_gOy On March 28, 2018 @ 2:44 am

Any organization with ties to Israel (like AIPAC) should be required to register in the United States as a “Foreign Agent” of a foreign government.

#31 Comment By LarsX On March 28, 2018 @ 7:51 am

We are entering a disturbing period where criticism = treason. More and more, the mainstream media are becoming stooges of the establishment (does that sound Marxist?) I have to rely on alternate news sources, e.g., TAC, to get a difference analysis or even to find out what is happening. It seems that many in government would love to shut those down.

It also seems the irony concerning AIPAC is not lost on many commentors. I think it wrote senate bill 720 which would limit our First Amendment rights. Haven’t heard of it? Look it up.

#32 Comment By Delia Ruhe On March 30, 2018 @ 3:05 am

Israelis and American Likudniks have been creating propaganda for at least the last four decades. But because they’re in the habit of sipping their own Kool Aid, they tend to project the propaganda habit on everyone else.