Establishment institutions usually start their implementation of censorship and the throttling of press freedom by going after individuals and outlets that are small and/or not well liked by a cross-section of the public. The obscurity or general unpalatable nature of the target ensures the success of setting the precedent.
Most Americans have probably never heard of Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF) and many would be unsympathetic once they learn that the U.S. government claims it is a think tank and journal associated with Russian military intelligence, although no evidence is offered to back up this assertion, and SCF denies it has ties to the Russian government. But years of anti-Russia sentiment in the political sphere and in most American media ensures that the claim alone will suffice to tar any Americans associated with Strategic Culture Foundation with a black brush.
I have confirmed that two American writers for SCF have received letters from the US Treasury Department in recent weeks warning them of fines of over $300,000 if they continue to write for the journal. These threats are in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2020 US election and part of the US government’s enforcement of Executive Order 13848 signed by President Donald Trump in September of 2018 which sought to ascertain foreign interference in any future elections in the US and to punish those deemed guilty. Threats to US elections included not only tampering with actual voting and its supporting infrastructure but "covert distribution of propaganda and disinformation."
According to the Treasury Department’s April 15, 2021 press release in connection with the designation of SCF and other Russian entities to be sanctioned pursuant to the executive order, the US government stated its intent to target those they see as Russia’s enablers on behalf of its alleged program to interfere in US elections:
"Treasury will target Russian leaders, officials, intelligence services, and their proxies that attempt to interfere in the US electoral process or subvert US democracy," said Secretary Janet L. Yellen. "This is the start of a new US campaign against Russian malign behavior." (emphasis added)
The release also accuses SCF specifically, without evidence, of being directed by Russian military intelligence and that its articles spread "disinformation" – which appears to mean opinion and analysis that the US government doesn’t like:
The Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF) is an online journal registered in Russia that is directed by the SVR and closely affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. SCF is controlled by the SVR’s Directorate MS (Active Measures) and created false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning US officials involved in the 2020 US presidential election. It publishes conspiracy theorists, giving them a broader platform to spread disinformation, while trying to obscure the Russian origins of the journal so that readers may be more likely to trust the sourcing…
…Treasury designated…the Strategic Culture Foundation pursuant to E.O. 13848 for having engaged in foreign interference in the US 2020 presidential election.
The ordeal started for the two American writers in July of 2020 when they each received a visit at their home from FBI agents inquiring about SCF and its connections to Russia. Daniel Lazare, an author and journalist told Finian Cunningham recently that the agents wanted to know about alleged links of SCF to Russian intelligence: "I replied that I wasn’t interested because I regard the entire avenue of inquiry as bogus and a product of the anti-Moscow hysteria that’s running rampant in Washington. So the agents left. Everything was polite and low-keyed, and the entire exchange took no more than four or five minutes."
Similarly, Michael Averko, who had written for SCF since 2015, stated that two FBI agents came to his home in July of 2020 and asked about SCF ties to the Russian government. They told him at the time that he wasn’t in any trouble and didn’t have to answer their questions, but Averko was hesitant to say much, recalling what had happened to Michael Flynn: "The only question I answered was on whether the SCF has any ties to Russian military intelligence. I answered by saying I can’t say for sure and doubt it. I added that my impression is that the SCF comprises politically interested Russians, who want to be involved with the issues they cover."
It wasn’t until November of this year that Lazare and Averko both received letters dated October 15, 2021 from the Treasury Department, delivered personally by the FBI. The letters advised that they were in violation of sanctions against SCF per executive order 13848 and were potentially subject to fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars if they did not stop contributing articles to SCF:
"[P]ursuant to Executive Order 13848 of September 12, 2018…all property and interests in property of SCF that are subject to US jurisdiction are blocked, and US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them…[E]ach violation… is subject to a statutory maximum civil monetary penalty of up to the greater of $311,562 or twice the value of the underlying transaction."
When asked whether he thought this would set a troubling precedent for Americans who write for foreign media outlets, Lazare said he believed it would:
"Absolutely. Why not ban RT, formerly known as Russia Today? If the government is pissed off against Emmanuel Macron, why not go after Agence France-Presse? The US complains when Russia harasses western news outlets, yet it’s guilty of precisely the same activities at home. As far as I’m concerned, threatening US journalists with fines for writing for a Russian press outlet is a flagrant assault on freedom of the press."
Averko was a bit more circumspect and thinks the government believes because SCF is a relatively small outlet, it can more easily get away with sanctioning it: "The SCF and its US based American writers are (in the overall comparative scheme of things) small potatoes and an easier target to beat up on."
Both writers say they know of other US contributors to the outlet who have received the same letter and are intimidated. Lazare stated:
"While I have no particular concerns in my own case, other journalists are so frightened that they’ve not only stopped writing, but don’t even want to speak about their experience with other reporters. No one wants to mess with the federal government because they know the feds can make your life a misery if they’re so motivated. So they’ve clammed up. If you’ve ever wondered what “chilling effect” means, this is it."
While US officials may be unlikely to go after major foreign media, it’s very possible this could be a precedent to go after smaller outlets with unsubstantiated accusations of foreign interference and spreading of "disinformation."
Lazare is in the process of seeking legal advice about the government threats. Averko said he was considering it and believes it would probably be best for all SCF contributors who received the letter to work together on any possible legal claim, though he’s aware of at least one who is unwilling to do so.
This is another example of the US undermining its own purported democratic values, which it touts to the rest of the world, in order to punish those who associate with the latest bogeyman country while providing no evidence that this outlet is even guilty of what they assert. After WMD’s and Russiagate, it would be foolish to take US government claims at face value as we are again being asked to do.
Natylie Baldwin is the author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations, available on Amazon. Her writing has appeared in various publications including Consortium News, RT, OpEd News, The Globe Post, Antiwar.com, The New York Journal of Books, and Dissident Voice.