Vladimir Putin-Tied Company Given Veto Power Over Sputnik Radio Guests

A new contract filed with the Department of Justice suggests that, yes, there is Kremlin propaganda on the airwaves

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Russian broadcaster Sputnik says it’s not a Kremlin propaganda outfit. But internal documents show that guests never make it onto its airwaves without the approval of a state-owned media organ close to Russia President Vladimir Putin.

According to documents filed with the Department of Justice last week, a Russian state-owned broadcaster must sign off on all on-air guests on Sputnik’s U.S. radio programming. That same broadcaster can order RIA Global, Sputnik’s Washington D.C.-based production company, to give airtime to guests of its choosing, and can veto Sputnik guests of whom it does not approve.

Details of that arrangement are spelled out in a contract between RIA Global and the Russian broadcaster: Federal State Unitary Enterprise Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency. The contract was filed with DOJ last week as part of RIA’s registration as a foreign agent under U.S. law.

All parties involved deny that that registration was necessary. And while Rossiya Segodnya may be state-owned, RIA insisted in its DOJ filings that it still operates independently of the Russian government. RIA and its U.S. staff, they say, retain “editorial control over [Sputnik] programs, newswires and web articles and journalists are given reasonable creative discretion.”

But the documents on file with DOJ show that editorial control rests in large part with Rossiya Segodnya, which, under its contract with RIA, is granted the right of refusal over key elements of Sputnik’s U.S. broadcasts. According to Sputnik, that editorial control, while available, has never been exercised.

Rossiya Segodnya—which translates to “Russia Today,” but is distinct from the country’s global TV broadcasting arm of the same name— is technically a paying client of RIA Global, which provides consulting services pursuant to the terms of the contract. It paid RIA more than $500,000 in December to produce Sputnik content, according to filings.

President Putin created the Moscow-based Rossiya Segodnya by presidential decree in 2013, and installed Kremlin ally Dmitry Kiselyov as its chief executive. It was created, essentially, as a replacement to a previous state-owned media outlet, RIA Novosti, which reported at the time that its dissolution at Putin’s hands “point[s] toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.” Proving those fears, that story was subsequently replaced with a Sputnik write-up that called the move “the latest in a series of steps aimed at modernizing Russia’s media sector.”

Rossiya Segodnya’s contract with RIA calls for between 30 and 120 opinion columns per month to be posted on Sputnik’s website. “If an essay focuses on Russia or international issues in which Russia is involved,” the contract stipulates, “it must reflect Russia's stance on the subject and present opinions of Russian experts.”

Other provisions of the contract are less explicit about Russian control over Sputnik content, but nonetheless make clear that Rossiya Segodnya has the last word on which voices will be heard on Sputnik’s U.S. airwaves.

According to the contract, RIA must supply in advance a list of the guests it plans to invite onto its radio programs. Rossiya Segodnya must sign off on the list before they air. If it doesn’t approve, it can direct RIA to replace specific guests. It can also “recommend” Sputnik radio guests. “The experts and newsmakers recommended by [Rossiya Segodnya] must be invited to participate in the Radio Programs,” the contract says.

In general, the contract adds, the same guest should not be interviewed on Sputnik radio programs more than once every other day. But that requirement is waived for “newsmakers and experts recommended by [Rossiya Segodnya], Russian officials, [and] experts and newsmakers currently in the Region.”

Sputnik insists that those provisions are designed to ensure broadcast quality, not to change the editorial makeup of its radio segments. “However, since the signing of the contract there was no single instance when our colleagues from Rossiya Segodnya would ask RIA Global to preview guest lists, try to object to RIA Global inviting someone, or insist on having certain guests,” Sputnik spokesperson Beverly Hunt told The Daily Beast in an email.

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RIA Global’s FARA registration comes amid heightened scrutiny of lobbyists, consultants, and propagandists for foreign governments, and the requirements imposed on them by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Passed in the 1930s to address Nazi influence in the U.S., the law imposes significant disclosure requirements on representatives of foreign governments and political parties operating on U.S. soil.

FARA is at the center of controversy over Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election and American attitudes towards President Donald Trump and failed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Violations of the law were among the charges that DOJ brought against 13 Russians last week over a surreptitious campaign to influence U.S. politics through social media disinformation campaigns.

A U.S. intelligence assessment released in early 2017 found that Sputnik was an integral part of the larger Russian government effort to sow discord in the United States.

“Russia’s state-run propaganda machine—comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls—contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded.

Those findings were “certainly relevant to our decision to examine [RT and Sputnik] more recently,” Adam Hickey, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for National Security, told reporters in December.

RT and Sputnik vehemently dispute that their U.S. contractors are acting at the behest of a foreign government. Sputnik’s American broadcasting company nonetheless filed its own FARA registration paperwork last year, as did RT’s Washington-based production company.

Sputnik did not respond to requests for comment on this story.