A new law designed to require financial disclosure by Russian media outlets in the U.S. will, some congressional Republicans hope, also force more transparency in the operations of media properties headquartered in the Gulf nation of Qatar.
Chief among those outlets is Al Jazeera English, which a group of conservative Republicans have targeted for nearly a year over allegations that it is used to propagandize on behalf of U.S.-designated terrorist groups and surreptitiously promotes the interests of its Qatari government patrons. Al Jazeera vehemently denies both charges.
The outlet may nonetheless find itself ensnared in a new law requiring foreign-owned U.S. television news broadcasters to file periodic reports with the Federal Communications Commission disclosing some information about the financial and operational control exerted over those broadcasters by parent companies abroad.
The measure was tucked into a Pentagon spending bill last year by Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Seth Moulton (D-MA), both members of the House Armed Services Committee, and incorporated language from a stand-alone bill that they introduced in March 2018.
“We can’t be blindsided by another outlet like Russia Today spreading propaganda that undermines our democracy,” Moulton said in a statement at the time.
Both members promoted that measure as a means to counter Russian disinformation efforts by way of U.S. broadcasters, including Russia Today and Sputnik, but the version that made it into law is far more expansive.
Any media outlet owned, controlled, substantially funded, or principally advancing the interests of a foreign government must register with the FCC under the new rules. The new FCC registration requirement adopts much of the same language as FARA in defining who must register.
And some congressional Republicans hope that that new authority will be used to shed some sunlight of Al Jazeera’s operations and its ties to the Qatari government.
A spokesperson for Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), one of a number of House Republicans who have pressed for more federal oversight of Al Jazeera in particular, said he welcomes any effort to force additional disclosure about the channel’s relationship with the Qatari government.
“The FCC language to the NDAA was not added by Congressman Zeldin,” the spokesperson noted. “However, he is supportive of requiring Al Jazeera, for example, to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act,” a law requiring disclosure by foreign government lobbyists and public relations agents operating on U.S. soil.
And while Al Jazeera is a primary target for some Republican members of Congress, one GOP aide familiar with the effort said they hope other Qatari media organs will receive scrutiny as well.
“The Qataris also run other outlets like Middle East Eye, digital platforms, etc,” the aide told The Daily Beast. “Some are U.S.-based, some just transmit here, some publish overseas and get bounced into Twitter and Facebook by bots. If they were paying lobbyists to do it they'd have to register under FARA and log all their activities, so we'd have transparency into how they're targeting Americans. But since it's their own media, the network and their influence are opaque.”
Al Jazeera English did not respond to a request for comment on the effort.
To date, no Qatari media outlet has registered with the FCC under the new disclosure rules. Neither has any Russian outlet. Just two broadcasters have done so: Anadolu Agency, a privately owned Turkish news agency; and MHz News LLC, a U.S.-based outlet that broadcasts French and German programming in the U.S.
Joshua Rosenstein, a lobbying and FARA compliance attorney with the firm Sandler Reiff, called the relatively few registrations “surprising, particularly given the breadth of the statute.”
“To me,” Rosenstein told The Daily Beast, “the dearth of reporting signals a combination of factors: lack of awareness of this small provision stuck into a massive bill; consternation and disagreement by state-run media over mandatory disclosure in general; [and] a lack of understanding of how the two laws might overlap.”
Zeldin and congressional Republican colleagues hope the FCC’s enforcement will be vigorous, and that the new registration requirements will provide an alternative to FARA registration for Al Jazeera and other Qatari outlets. So far, those outlets have escaped FARA requirements that have ensnared Russian broadcasters including RT and Sputnik, in spite of calls, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), to foist the “foreign agent” label on those outlets.
Cruz, Zeldin, and seventeen other House Republicans sent a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April questioning Al Jazeera’s failure to register as a foreign agent under FARA.
“We find it troubling that the content produced by this network often directly undermines American interests with favorable coverage of U.S. State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” they wrote. “Al Jazeera’s record of radical anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel broadcasts warrants scrutiny from regulators to determine whether this network is in violation of U.S. law.”
That letter, and additional calls for Al Jazeera FARA registration, came after the channel’s American arm broadcast a number of undercover videos from meetings of leading U.S. pro-Israel groups.
Stefanik’s office did not respond to questions about the measure, and how it might broaden the scope of media disclosure well beyond the Russian outlets singled out in Moulton’s statement. But Moulton appeared unconcerned by the scope of the new requirements.
“There are no risks of it being twisted or corrupted in implementation because of various tweaks to language we made during the NDAA conference process taking into account feedback from broadcasters, media associations, and others,” Moulton spokesman Matt Corridoni told The Daily Beast in an email.
The details of the FCC’s new registration requirements have yet to be fully hammered out and will likely take shape later this year, but questions remain as to the extent of information that outlets must provide. Even the sole pair that have registered with the commission provided very little information about their operations—the Anadolu Agency’s registration letter was less than 70 words long—and far less than is required under FARA’s disclosure regime.
It’s also not clear whether—as RT believes—outlets covered by the FCC’s new rules also need to file FARA disclosures with the Justice Department. As with FARA compliance, which has stepped up of late as DOJ takes a renewed interest in enforcing the 80-year-old law, potential registration targets appear to be playing it safe. MHz News told the FCC that it is wholly owned by U.S. persons, but that it “is filing this report in the interest of transparency and out of an abundance of caution.”
Christopher Terry, a professor of media law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, predicted that once the FCC completes its regulatory process, MHz and Anadolu Agency will have a lot of company.
“It’s only been a couple months, and nothing—nothing—happens at the FCC in a couple months,” Terry said. “I would suspect that a year from now there will be a lot more companies on this list.”