Media wars, Middle East, New in Lobbying

Al Jazeera builds case against order to register as foreign agent

Lobbyists for Al Jazeera are laying the groundwork for a potential challenge to the Donald Trump administration’s demand that its AJ+ online news channel register as a foreign agent.

They insist that last week’s determination by the Department of Justice that Washington-based AJ+ is a “publicity agent” of Qatar was a political decision without legal merit. Instead, they argue, the administration is violating both the letter and spirit of the disclosure law by caving in to a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign by the United Arab Emirates.

Al Jazeera’s first move in its counter-offensive was to share the Justice Department’s order with Mother Jones, a left-leaning news outlet that focused largely on the UAE-funded attacks in its reporting.

Lobbyists for the Doha-based news network are also highlighting the timing of the order, which came on the eve of the White House ceremony during which the UAE normalized ties with Israel.

They’re noting how some of the Justice Department’s language mirrors that of UAE lobbyists.

And they’re drawing attention to a pattern of donations from UAE lobbyists to mostly Republican lawmakers who have been pressing the Justice Department to take action against Al Jazeera ever since the UAE joined Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in blockading Qatar in June 2017.

Data shared with Foreign Lobby Report shows those lawmakers received $70,000 from foreign agents of the UAE since then. That includes $28,000 in campaign donations from Akin Gump lobbyists and the Akin Gump PAC to the handful of lawmakers who signed an Aug. 7 letter to Attorney General William Barr urging the Justice Department to demand Al Jazeera’s registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

“The UAE has confirmed it presented the United States with preconditions prior to announcing the Abraham Accords, and we received DOJ’s letter the day before the UAE signed the Accords,” an Al Jazeera spokesperson told Foreign Lobby Report. “Hobbling Al Jazeera was one of the top conditions of the UAE’s blockade against Qatar and the Justice Department just gave the UAE what it wanted.”

“We are deeply disappointed by the Department’s decision, which runs counter to the extensive factual record we provided demonstrating that FARA registration is not applicable to AJ+,” the spokesperson added. “The legal structure, editorial structure, editorial policies, budgeting process and content of AJ+ clearly demonstrate its independence. We are reviewing the determination and considering our options.”

The Justice Department is standing by its decision. “FARA Unit’s enforcement activities are based on following the facts where they lead and the applicable law,” spokesman Marc Raimondi said in a statement to the The New York Times.

The UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, flatly denied last week that Al Jazeera had been brought up in the context of the Abraham Accords or that the UAE cared much about the network at all: “They’re really not as important as they think they are,” he told the Times. That dismissive tone however is belied by the multi-million dollar lobbying campaign that the UAE and Qatar continue to wage against each other, much of it centered around Al Jazeera’s coverage.

The UAE government has eight lobbying firms on its roster, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with Akin Gump playing a lead role on the Al Jazeera filed; the Qatari government has 16, while Al Jazeera itself has three. They are led by DLA Piper, which in turn has retained the services of former former US ambassador to Belgium Tom Korologos at TCK International as well as CLS StrategiesAndrew Koneschusky, a former national press secretary for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Together the three firms have been paid almost $2 million since Al Jazeera ramped up its lobbying in mid-2019.

Al Jazeera is hardly alone in bristling at the registration requirement, which some media experts warn can stigmatize news outlets’ content and journalists by painting them as propagandists while also harming their news-gathering ability by forcing them to disclose all their contacts with US officials. Under the Trump administration multiple outlets from countries including Russia, China and Turkey have been required to register (see chart below).

“I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to challenge DOJ’s decision on the grounds that there was political influence somewhere along the line.”

Attorney Josh Rosenstein

The difference this time is the chorus of independent voices coming to Al Jazeera’s defense, which its lobbyists have been keen to amplify. This includes journalists and watchdog groups with deep track records of exposing foreign influence in the United States.

“My thought is that this reeks of FARA being used as a political weapon and a bargaining chip in an international negotiation,” said Ben Freeman, the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy. “Which, if true, is exactly how FARA should not be used.”

Leaders of the National Press Club (NPC) in Washington have also raised the alarm. In a Sept. 18 press release carried on the club’s web site, NPC President Michael Freedman and NPC Journalism Institute President Angela Greiling Keane wrote that the FARA mandate “seems wholly political.”

“Americans interest is in the growth and proliferation of independent media throughout the Middle East that can serve as a check on corrupt and unresponsive governments,” they wrote. “Calling Al Jazeera a propaganda outlet instead of the independent news organization it is sends exactly the wrong message.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also opposes the move. In a statement to Mother Jones, senior staff attorney Patrick Toomey called it “a threat to the freedom of the press.”

“People in the United States rely on dedicated news organizations for reporting on world events and the human impact of our government’s policies around the globe,” Toomey said. “The government should not misuse a vague and overbroad ‘foreign agent’ law to target news organizations for political purposes.”

Meanwhile Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, has noted that part of the Justice Department letter of determination appears to have been copy-pasted from a recent report by UAE lobbyist and former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) that made the case for Al Jazeera’s FARA registration.

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Still, the network would face long odds if it were to opt to fight the Justice Department in court. Last year, Florida-based RM Broadcasting, which broadcasts Russia’s Sputnik radio in the United States, was forced to register as a foreign agent after losing just such a fight.

“I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to challenge DOJ’s decision on the grounds that there was political influence somewhere along the line, by enemies of this foreign regime,” said Josh Rosenstein, a government ethics lawyer at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein and Birkenstock . “Lobbyists and foreign agents make (subject to FEC regulations) political contributions all the time. They lobby for certain outcomes. The process may be unseemly, but it doesn’t make the resultant decision unlawful. If there were allegations of actual bribery involved, then perhaps it would be a stronger basis to challenge the decision.”

“In order to pull this off,” Rosenstein added, “the outlet would likely have to sue DOJ directly … for a declaratory judgment that DOJ’s conclusion was incorrect and that the outlet is exempt from registration or otherwise not subject to FARA. That’s going to be a fact-specific inquiry for the court, and will turn on the court’s interpretation of the same evidence that one presumes DOJ had reviewed prior to issuing the determination notice:  the level of any editorial control by any foreign government; the corporate ownership structure of the outlet; whether there’s any policy that the outlet’s viewpoint has to match any policies of a foreign country, and so on.”

He said Al Jazeera could also also informally appeal internally to the Attorney General’s office asking the department to reconsider, since FARA permits the AG to issue his own exemptions in certain cases.

“That’s something that’s often done, but it’s usually done prior to a public determination letter being released,” Rosenstein said. “One can surmise that the AG’s office was already aware of this and declined to hold it up.”

Sept. 14, 2020
The US Department of Justice requires AJ+ to register as a foreign agent of the government of Qatar.
Sept. 14, 2020
Washington production company Ghebi registers as a foreign agent of Russia’s state-run Rossiya Segodnya news agency.
May 21, 2020
The China Daily Distribution Corp. discloses for the first time how much it spends to publish the Chinese Communist Party’s China Daily alongside US newspapers.
March 12, 2020
The US branch of Turkish public broadcaster TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) registers as a foreign agent of TRT. The DOJ determined that it had an obligation to do so back in August 2019.
Feb. 24, 2020
The US Department of State designates five Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions.” They are : Xinhua; China Global Television Network (CGTN); China Radio International; China Daily Distribution Corporation; and Hai Tian Development USA.
June 2019
Florida-based RM Broadcasting, which broadcasts Sputnik radio in the United States, registers as a foreign agent of Rossiya Segodnya after losing a lawsuit against the Department of Justice. The DOJ initially requested that RM register in June 2018.
Feb. 2019
CGTN America in Washington registers as a foreign agent of China’s CCTV. The Department of Justice required it to do so in December 2018. Xinhua has also been asked to register but has not done so, according to the Wall Street Journal.
May 2018
Virginia-based content distributor MHz registers as a foreign agent of Germany’s DW (Deutsche Welle) and France’s FMM (France Medias Monde) “out of an abundance of caution.”
Feb.  2018
Washington-based RIA Global registers as a foreign agent of Rossiya Segodnya after receiving a request to do so from the DOJ in January.
Dec.  2017
RTTV America, which produces content for Russia’s RT and TV-Novosti, registers as a foreign agent of ANO TV-Novosti (RT’s parent company) after receiving a request in August.
Nov. 2017
Washington production company T&R registers as a foreign agent of Russia’s ANO TV-Novosti after DOJ requested it do so in August.
Timeline of foreign media registrations in the United States

At least one person is rooting for a fight.

RM Broadcasting’s owner, Arnold Ferolito, told Foreign Lobby Report he’d spent almost $200,000 fighting the order. He could have appealed, he said, but ran out of money.

“I was unable to fight them any further,” Ferolito lamented. As for Al Jazeera, he said, “of course they should push back.”