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US Propaganda Push Against Russia May Shred Basic Constitutional Freedoms

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In an Orwellian Twist of Fate, two US senators drop legislation calling for the creation of a propaganda agency tasked with “delegitimizing” Russian and Chinese media, and “strategically” presenting “facts” to support US interests. Critics slam the bill as “extreme,” adding that it likely violates the US First Amendment.

On Thursday, US Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) introduced bipartisan legislation titled "The Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act." The bill targets specifically the growing visibility of the popular RT (Russia Today) and CCTV (China Central Television) stations by calling for increased appropriations to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which already receives $768 million per year under the current budget, and developing a new agency under the command of the State Department.

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Portman, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a speech Thursday before the Atlantic Council think tank that the purpose of the bill is to "delegitimize" alternative news sources such as RT and CCTV. In making the argument for the necessity of the measure, Portman claimed that RT spends $400 million on its Washington Bureau alone, a position that RT representatives adamantly deny and that is a direct contradiction with previous reports from Western media and analysts. 

What Does "The Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act" Do?

Portman opened his remarks by noting that March 18 "marks the second anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent military intervention in eastern Ukraine." Apart from mischaracterizing the reunification of Ukraine with Russia — the result of a referendum in which 97% of Crimeans voted for the move — and reiterating baseless claims of Russian military actions in that country, the Senator argued that these actions "exposed and intensified a broader struggle over the future of Central and Eastern Europe, the future of NATO, and of the rules-based, American-led international community."

In response to a perceived threat of Russian aggression against NATO interests, dismissed months ago by Russian President Vladimir Putin as "the kind of thing that only crazy people think and only when they are dreaming," Portman’s legislation calls for the following provisions:

First, the formation of a new US agency called the Center for Information Analysis and Response spearheaded by the State Department with assistance from USAID. This agency is tasked with "exposing and countering foreign disinformation operations and proactively advancing ‘fact-based’ narratives that support US allies and interests."

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The legislation presumes either that all "facts" will support US interests at all time or, conversely, restricts by law that only "facts" favorable to US interests may be presented.

Second, the creation of a fund to provide grants and contracts to NGOs, civil society organizations, think tanks, private sector companies, media organizations, and other experts tasked with creating adaptive and responsive US strategy options and integrating their expertise into the strategy-making process.

The legislation requires, under force of law and subsequent approval of grants, that reporting by BBG and affiliate media outlets to present stories from a "strategic" lens that is biased toward US interests.

Third, the legislation calls for increased "cultural and educational exchanges" with "special consideration to students and community leaders applying to State Department exchange programs from populations and countries heavily targeted by 'foreign disinformation and propaganda campaigns.'"

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The concern posed here is that the measure calls for a program mirroring AIPAC’s (the American Israeli Political Action Committee) cultural exchanges with the US which require, as a predicate, adherence to a 'pro-Israeli' US foreign policy within the Middle East.

RT’s Response

In an opinion editorial Thursday, following the announcement of the proposed legislation, RT takes exception to Portman’s claim that the station’s Washington bureau alone spends $400 million per year, stating that this figure is not only false, but propaganda, noting that the total 2016 budget is $248 million for RT’s entire global operation.

RT criticized BBG’s primary outlet, Voice of America (VOA), for reporting Portman’s claimed figure of $400 million "without question and with no apparent fact checking." They go on to say that "Senator Portman, and the supposedly venerated news organization he seeks to aid, fight against ‘disinformation’ by starting off with a blatant lie."

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The station notes that, despite working under a tighter budget than Senator Portman’s figure suggests, “RT boasts 70 million weekly TV viewers, nearly 50 million monthly unique visitors to their digital platform, and the status as the number one international TV news network on YouTube, with more than 3 billion views.”

What will be the ultimate impact of the legislation?  

Earl Rasmussen, Executive Vice President of the Eurasia Center, in an interview with Radio Sputnik, questioned whether the legislation violates the US First Amendment right of freedom of speech and the press. In addressing this point, Rasmussen noted that the open-ended manner in which the legislation was drafted means it can be used against any media outlet that opposes Washington’s views.

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Rasmussen called the legislation "a little too extreme," based on his own readings. He also questioned whether the public interest would be better served by censoring or "delegitimizing" alternative news media outlets, even if foreign funded.

Rasmussen suggested that a better solution may be to just do what he does, "listen to about four different news channels from around the world every day to get a balanced perspective on the world."

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