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China Talks with US on Demand for Media to Register as Foreign Agents

In this Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 file photo, residents wearing masks walk in front of the iconic headquarters of China's state broadcaster Central China Television after a cold front pushed out heavy pollution from Beijing, China.
China Talks with US on Demand for Media to Register as Foreign Agents
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China is urging the United States not to require Chinese state media to register as foreign agents.

China’s Foreign Ministry says Chinese officials made the appeal at talks earlier this week with U.S. officials.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday on a U.S. Department of Justice demand. It said the department wants China to register its Xinhua news agency and English language television station CGTN as foreign agents.

The demand comes at a time of increasing U.S. interest in foreign media that could influence American public opinion.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act

In the United States, foreign agents used to operate secretly, but now the Justice Department is using a little known law to force them into the open.

The measure, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), became law in 1938. It was designed to suppress German propaganda, just before the start of World War II.

FARA requires public relations professionals, lawyers and others working for foreign governments in the U.S. to register with the Justice Department. They also are required to report on their activities every six months.

Until recently, the law was not enforced and most lobbyists ignored it. Then the Justice Department launched an investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 elections.

Former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller is leading the investigation. He has used the law to bring charges against former members of Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign.

Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were arrested and charged with FARA violations and other crimes.

Paul Manafort
Paul Manafort

Manafort once worked for Ukrainian politicians. Gates was a Manafort business partner.

Now, other Washington, D.C. lobbyists are coming forward.

Over 400 lobbyists have registered with the Justice Department, up 24 percent since last year. For nearly 20 years before 2014, that number had been falling, but the actual number rose.

Aggressive enforcement

David Laufman is a Washington lawyer who advises companies and individuals on the FARA law. He said the increase resulted not only from the government’s use of the law, but because public relations businesses know about it.

“It's a new day at the Department of Justice for FARA enforcement and there is...risk for companies” that don’t register, said Laufman.

Before the Gates and Manafort indictments, the Justice Department had prosecuted just seven FARA cases in the years since the law was enacted. Recently, it charged five additional foreign lobbyists with violating FARA.

Laufman said he expected the increase in new registrations to continue.

“(When) cases present themselves for criminal investigation and prosecution, I do continue to expect more FARA prosecutions by the department," he said.

Lydia Dennett is a FARA expert at the Project on Government Oversight. She said loopholes in the law make it difficult for the Justice Department to find foreign lobbyists.

But, she said, Congress is trying increase enforcement of FARA. They have given the department greater investigative power and the ability to demand financial penalties against violators.

I’m Susan Shand.

VOA’s Masood Farivar reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

professional – n. a job requiring special training or skill

lobby – v. to try to influence government officials to make decisions for or against something

indictment – n. a statement written by government lawyers and charging someone with a crime

prosecute – v. to try to prove a case against someone accused of a crime

loopholen. a mistake in the way a law, rule, or contract is written that makes it possible for some people to legally avoid obeying it

penalty – n. punishment for breaking a rule or law