What is a “foreign agent” in the US?

For months, the “Vazrazhdane” formation has been proclaiming the introduction of a law according to which Bulgarian media outlets that have received funding from a foreign country must register as foreign agents.

Such media, according to “Vazrazhdane”, are all those that received funding from the “America for Bulgaria” foundation, which the formation claims is funded by the American government.

The argument of “Vazrazhdane” is that such a law exists in the USA and should be applied to their agents in Bulgaria.

It is also insisted that the public appearances of such media, organizations and experts be accompanied by an inscription that their opinion is not objective, but expresses the position of a foreign country.

Speeches of representatives of the formation with these statements can be read and heard here, here, here, here and these are only a small part of the examples.

Factcheck.bg checked to what extent the claims of “Vazrazhdane” are confirmed by the facts.

How is it in the US?

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) has been in force in the US since 1938. Its purpose is to let the American public know if people and organizations acting on behalf of foreign countries and organizations are involved in shaping public opinion. The law does not prohibit the expression of different ideologies and positions, but only requires the relevant organizations to ensure transparency of their actions and funding.

In April 2022, the House Judiciary Committee in the US Congress held its first hearing in 30 years of the law, which has been unchanged for decades and has been widely criticized for its implementation. An American Bar Association report recommended that the word “agent” be replaced by “representative” because “agent” creates misleading implications and stigmatizes registrants. In regards to the media, experts recommend focusing on the extent to which foreign governments exercise control over content distributed in the US. From a journalistic point of view, there is much criticism against the implementation of the law. There are concerns that it could be used for political purposes or to silence critical voices. Also, registered media are obliged to disclose many details about their work, including their sources of information. The idea that the government defines the border between journalism and propaganda is also problematic.

What is a foreign agent according to the US law

According to the US law, this is any person acting as an agent, representative, employee, or otherwise at the direction, request, or under the control of a “foreign principal.”

A “foreign principal” or owner/manager and head of a foreign agent can be a government, political party, individuals, and any type of entity that is located and operates outside the United States. In addition, registration is required if “political activities” are conducted with the intent to influence American public opinion and politics. This includes a wide range of activities such as public relations, advertising, information activities, fundraising, lobbying.

The Bulgarian trace

Currently, there are 504 registered foreign agents in the US. Active foreign principals are 774. These include companies, non-governmental organizations, political parties and other political groups. There are 8 Bulgarian companies and groups of persons registered as principals of foreign agents in the USA. All registrations were made within the last two years.

The company BGR Government Affairs, LLC is registered as a foreign agent of “Aurora Consult” EAD (on behalf of Delyan Peevski). The documents state that “the foreign principal is a legal firm that engaged the registered agent on behalf of a client who is a member of the Bulgarian Parliament.” Governmental Law LLC works in the service of the companies “Gradus-98” AD and “Eurometal” OOD. Alexandria Group International LLC acts on behalf of several Bulgarian individuals and companies: Atanas, Plamen and Hristina Bobokovi; Minyu and Reni Staikovi; “Investbank”. QORVIS LLC is registered as an agent of Atomenergoremont. Some of these contracts have already been disclosed in journalistic investigations.

Are there media outlets registered as foreign agents in the US

There is a clear exception about media written into the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but it only applies if at least 80% of the company is owned by US citizens and is not owned, operated, controlled or financed by a foreign principal. According to the Department of Justice, state-controlled media organizations that attempt to manipulate audience attitudes or influence American politics are required to register as “foreign agents.”

Therefore, the Chinese state-controlled agency Xinhua News Agency North America, China Central Television (CCTV), the newspapers China Daily and People’s Daily (People’s Daily Overseas Edition) have registrations. The Russian state media group Russia Today, which includes RIA Novosti, Sputnik and others (Federal State Unitary Enterprise Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency), as well as TV Novosti (ANO TV-Novosti) – the legal entity of RT television, are also registered. The Japanese public broadcaster The Japan Broadcasting Corporation, NHK, has also been registered since the 1990s, and since 2005, so has been the South Korean television station KBS. In 2019 and 2020, the Ministry of Justice issued decisions on the need to register Turkish state television and Qatar’s Al Jazeera as foreign agents.

Registration does not require the media to change or edit their content, but to regularly report on their activities and place a clarifying caption on the “information materials” they distribute. No details have been given as to whether this caption should be placed on any material broadcast or published by the media or mentioned in specific places in the program or on their websites. The clarifying inscription should inform that the organization is registered as a foreign agent with the Ministry of Justice. There are no evaluations and qualifications in it, as contained in the claims of “Vazrazhdane” – that the opinion of these media or experts “are not objective” and “express the position of a foreign country”.

Who are the “foreign agents” in Bulgaria according to “Vazrazhdane”

According to “Vazrazhdane”, Bulgarian media that received funding from the “America for Bulgaria” foundation, which is financed by the American government, should be declared “foreign agents” in Bulgaria. Is funding from a US foundation a sufficient condition to be declared “agents” and is the foundation really funded by the US government?

US foreign agent registration law does not distinguish between whether the foreign principal is a state or a private company, although in the recent years the attention to state-controlled foreign media that distribute content in the US has been increasing. Media organizations do not register under the law if at least 80% of the company is owned by US citizens and it is not owned, operated, controlled or financed by a foreign principal. So, in order to enter the hypothesis of this law, it must be proven that the media “Vazrazhdane” refers to are owned by a foreign owner or controlled by a foreign principal.

The America for Bulgaria Foundation awards grants to both media and non-governmental organizations – all projects are publicly available on the foundation’s website. This does not make the foundation the principal of these media and organizations, nor does it give grounds to believe that they operate under its control, as is the meaning of “foreign agent” in US law. Therefore, there is no reason to claim that if a law similar to the one in the USA is adopted in Bulgaria, these media outlets will have to register as foreign agents. Also, the emphasis is on the transparency of funds and activities – this is a practice that is still applied in our country by the media working on projects and by donor organizations. Information about this type of financing is publicly available and thus the goal of having transparency is achieved.

Among the media listed by “Vazrazhdane”, there is only one that is financed by the American state. This is the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The Bulgarian section has a Bulgarian editorial team and operates in Bulgaria. This information is publicly available on the media’s website: “RFE/RL is registered as a private, non-profit corporation funded by a grant from the US Congress through the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). RFE/RL’s editorial independence is guaranteed by US law.”

As for the financing of the “America for Bulgaria” foundation, here too things are not as “Vazrazhdane” presents them. The foundation is financed with its own funds, not with money from the US government. The America for Bulgaria Foundation was established in 2009 with a capital of 400 million dollars. This is the profit from the sale of “Bulgarian American Credit Bank”, owned by the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund. This fund was established in 1991, with an initial capital of $55 million through the US Agency for International Development. This money is actually the only state funding – in 1991 a total of 10 similar funds were created in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.

Although the money is state-owned, the funds are managed by independent boards that include entrepreneurs and investors. The aim is to invest the funds in the respective countries’ economies, create companies, provide employment and ultimately generate profits. In 2008, the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund sold its assets (with a return of over 800%) and with the profit of 400 million dollars, the America for Bulgaria Foundation was founded. Each year, it donates about $20 million, and the rest of the general fund is reinvested to finance its future work. This is also confirmed by the foundation’s report for 2020 (the last one published on the site), as well as by an independent financial audit.

Despite refering to the American law, the ideas promoted by “Vazrazhdane” are much more reminiscent of the Russian law on foreign agents of 2012. It is also presented by the Kremlin as identical to the American law, but this is not true. Why – read in the following text on Factcheck.bg.

Translated by Vanessa Nikolova


Законът за регистрацията на чуждестранните агенти в САЩ: https://www.justice.gov/nsd-fara

Обсъждане на закона през април 2022 г. от правната комисия в Камарата на представителите в американския Конгрес: https://www.fara.us/house-judiciary-committee-holds-first-fara-hearing-in-30

Доклад на Американската адвокатска асоциация с предложения за реформи в закона: https://www.justsecurity.org/80110/foreign-agents-registration-act-reform-on-the-2022-agenda/

Критики срещу закона от страна на журналистите в САЩ: https://www.cjr.org/analysis/fara-press.php

„Принципал“, Речник на българския език: https://ibl.bas.bg/rbe/lang/bg/%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%BD%D1%86%D0%B8%D0%BF%D0%B0%D0%BB/

Регистър на чуждестранните агенти в САЩ: https://efile.fara.gov/ords/fara/f?p=1381:1:7375661865280:::::

Регистрация на дружеството „BGR Government Affairs, LLC“: https://efile.fara.gov/docs/5430-Exhibit-AB-20201216-88.pdf

Bird.bg, Домусчиеви, Христо Ковачки, Петя Славова и „Пилето” лъскат имидж с лобисти в САЩ: https://bird.bg/lobbying-usa-bg/?fbclid=IwAR38BfwT7wAVElqe81wIlNP8lgDxrODj7Y-eM9IXae028HJ3pBYJn9Pil0o

Министерството на правосъдието на САЩ и становището му за това как трябва да се прилага Закона за чуждестранните агенти спрямо медиите: https://www.fara.us/foreign-agents-registration-act

История на фондация „Америка за България“: https://us4bg.org/bg/%d0%b7%d0%b0-%d0%b0%d0%b1%d1%84/%d0%bd%d0%b0%d1%88%d0%b0%d1%82%d0%b0-%d0%b8%d1%81%d1%82%d0%be%d1%80%d0%b8%d1%8f/

Отчет на „Америка за България“ за 2020 г.: https://us4bg.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/ABF-Annual-Report-2020.pdf

Независим финансов одит на „Америка за България“ от 31 декември 2021 г.: https://us4bg.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/ABF_Standalone-FS_2021.pdf

Публикацията е създадена с подкрепата на Европейския съюз. Отговорността за съдържанието е изцяло на Factcheck.bg.

Ralitsa Kovacheva
Ralitsa Kovacheva
Ralitsa Kovacheva is a doctor of journalism and a lecturer in international journalism at the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski ”. She has published three books and numerous scientific articles. Her research interests are in the European Union, international politics and disinformation. Ralitsa Kovacheva has many years of journalistic experience. She has worked as a journalist at BNT, FM Plus radio, published in various online media and is one of the founders of RE:TV and BiT.

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