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D.C. radio station is a Russian agent, federal judge rules

WZHF-AM is "a Russian state-owned media enterprise created by Vladimir Putin to advance Russian interests abroad," the Justice Department contended.
Image: Sputnik, a radio station funded by the Russian government, is broadcasting from the heart of the nation's capital amid a national controversy about the nation's meddling in the 2016 election
Lee Stranahan, left, and Garland Nixon, co-hosts of 'Fault Lines' on Radio Sputnik, broadcasting from Washington, D.C., in July 2017.Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post/Getty Images file

The Justice Department on Monday welcomed a federal judge's ruling that a Washington, D.C., radio station must register as an agent of the Russian government, saying Americans "have a right to know if a foreign flag waves behind speech broadcast in the United States."

Except for the five seconds every hour during which it identifies itself, WZHF-AM has broadcast Radio Sputnik around the clock since December 2017.

On it, Washington-area listeners can hear the takes of hosts like Lee Stranahan, a former Breitbart News reporter; Eugene Puryear, twice the vice presidential candidate of the Party for Socialism and Liberation; and John Kiriakou, the former CIA analyst who first confirmed that the United States used waterboarding to interrogate al Qaeda prisoners.

Radio Sputnik is part of Rossíya Segódnya, the government news agency created in 2013 by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In June 2018, the Justice Department ordered WZHF's owner, RM Broadcasting of Jupiter, Florida, to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 anti-propaganda law.

RM filed a counterclaim, arguing that it simply buys and sells air time, without regard to or even knowledge of that content. Moreover, according to court documents, RM's contract with Rossíya Segódnya specifically declares that neither party is an "agent for the other."

But Judge Robin Rosenberg found last week in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach, Florida, that what RM knows or intends isn't important.

Rosenberg noted that under the contract, RM is required to perform services for Rossíya Segódnya in exchange for payment, which she said makes the company an agent of the Russian broadcaster under the law. And simply saying you're not an agent doesn't mean you're not, in fact, an agent, she found.

RM's attorney, Nicole Hughes Waid, said Tuesday that the company was a small business and "doesn't have the resources to continue this legal battle with the government."

John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement Monday that the issue isn't a free-speech dispute over what WZHF is airing.

"Our concern is not the content of the speech but providing transparency about the true identity of the speaker," Demers said.

The ruling, however, comes in the larger context of the U.S.-Russia media war.

In a report in January 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies called RM's sister TV station, RT America, "Russia's state-run propaganda machine," accusing it of having taken part in Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In November 2017, the United States listed RT America as a foreign agent — even though ostensibly similar services like Britain's BBC, China's CCTV and Germany's Deutsche Welle Radio USA haven't been listed.

Margarita Simonyan, RT's editor-in-chief, sarcastically congratulated the United States at the time for its "freedom of speech and everyone who still believes in it."

Then, in what was widely seen as retaliation, Putin later that month signed a bill authorizing Russia to register U.S. media outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as foreign agents.

"Our attitude toward the American media is formed by the truly hostile actions of the American side toward our media," Aleksei Pushkov, a member of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, said at the time.

"If the U.S. will reconsider the decisions it made recently, then the Russian decisions can be reconsidered, too," he said.

CORRECTION (May 14, 2019, 5 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the party for which Eugene Puryear was a vice presidential candidate. It is name of the organization of which Ronald Lauder is president. It is the Party for Socialism and Liberation, not the Party for Socialism and Liberalism.