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Head of Russian outlet RT says US foreign agent order hurts

MOSCOW (AP) — The head of the Russian television channel RT wants the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom of speech. Yet American journalists attuned to those principles have not defended the former Russia Today network in its fight with the U.S. government.

RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan said in an interview that the U.S. government's requirement that it register as a foreign agent has damaged RT's reputation and led it to being shut out of events. It runs counter to American values, she said.

"The U.S. has now become a beacon, a leader, in this movement to shut everyone up," Simonyan said in an Associated Press interview at RT's Moscow headquarters. "That's so disappointing." RT says it is a legitimate news organization, comparable to Britain's government-supported BBC or the U.S.-funded Voice of America. But an expert at George Washington University who has studied RT's content said the network is a propaganda arm of the Russian government designed to make its benefactor look good.

"It's not really journalism in the straight-up case," said Robert Orttung, an international affairs professor at George Washington. "So that's why the journalists here don't defend it." Orttung's study illustrates how RT's news coverage tracks Moscow's priorities; for instance, spending much more time on Middle East coverage when Russia was active in the Syrian conflict. Its coverage of the United States focuses on the "chaos" of the democratic system, emphasizing protests about police violence, immigration and refugee issues, for example, he said.

"They do everything in their power to make America look bad, even if they have to bend the truth to get there," said Beth Knobel, a journalism professor at Fordham University who reported from Moscow for CBS News and the Los Angeles Times between 1992 and 2006.

U.S. government-funded services have procedures in place to prevent government interference and try to make their point by reporting information accurately, the professors said. But Knobel says she knows people in the Russian government and at government-funded news sources whose orders are to give marching orders and to take them.

"If RT was a real, free and fair network that was doing quality journalism, people would defend it," Knobel said. "But it's not." Still, Orttung said that it's worthy of debate whether the decision to require RT to register as a foreign agent was heavy-handed. U.S. intelligence agencies say RT and the state-funded Russian news agency Sputnik, which Simonyan also runs, produced biased reports to undermine faith in the 2016 election process, damage Hillary Clinton's candidacy and promote Donald Trump.

Given the U.S. tradition of freedom of the press, "it needs to be a more careful and thoughtful response," Orttung said. In the U.S., RT's slickly produced programs can be accessed on some cable services, the internet, on social media and YouTube, and Simonyan says they're no less balanced or impartial than reports of other news organizations.

"Listen, your own president thinks that your media is, almost all of it, is fake," she said. She said RT has never made any secret of the fact that it comes from Russia. Since the requirement that RT register as a foreign agent, a Capitol Hill committee decided Nov. 29 to revoke RT's accreditation to cover Congress.

Steven Barnett, communications professor at the University of Westminster in London, said he sees some merit in RT's argument that requiring it to register as a foreign agent is infringing on its journalistic rights. While its journalists are unlikely to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin, they seem to have "a measure of discretion and freedom" when reporting on Russia and the world, Barnett said.

"It's conducted along professional journalistic standards. They try to be as accurate as possible and check sources, and they'll try to cover stories from a perspective that is not Western-dominated," Barnett said.

He does believe, however, that viewers should be told they are watching a channel funded by the Russian government so they can make their own judgments about the material.

Associated Press writer Gregory Katz in London contributed to this report. Bauder reported from New York.

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