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RFE/RL’s “permanent” presence in Russia appears to be coming to an end after 30 years

The forced departure of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from Russia was predicted together with Putin’s rise two decades ago. The increasing pressure from the authorities is part of a campaign to eliminate traces of Western involvement in Russian life.

May 4, 2021 - Peter Gross - Articles and Commentary

Shortwave transmitting station of the USA International Broadcasting Bureau near Biblis, Germany, used to broadcast programmes of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty into Eastern Europe and Russia. Photo: Kuebi wikimedia.org

Thirty years after opening an office in Moscow, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) appears to be on its way out. The group has become a victim of both punishing legislation designed to constrain and demonise foreign media and journalists, as well as related fines that now stand at 2.3 million US dollars.

While RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has condemned Russia’s attempts to force the broadcaster and the Current Time video-producing network to leave the country and vowed to “continue to fight these attacks… through all possible means”, downsizing has already begun at the media outlets. Both operations will “significantly limit” their presence in Russia and have offered some employees a choice of relocating to the Czech Republic or Ukraine. With deadlines looming over the payment of the fines, and the continued enforcement of Russian legislation, what will happen next is uncertain.

 “I am surprised that it was allowed to function this long when other foreign organisations were closed down already in 2015-2016”, said Mark G. Pomar, the former executive director of the Board for International Broadcasting. This American agency oversaw RFE/RL until the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) was created in 2018. USAGM is the federal agency that oversees RFE/RL, Voice of America, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network.

The former director added that Russia is trying to shut out the world, stating that that they have been “doing that for the past five years and they hadn’t got around to RFE/RL until now”. He also stated that “Logically speaking it fits perfectly with what [President Vladimir] Putin wants to do, which is to eliminate any and all traces of Western involvement in Russian life”.

Russia’s present is in the past

Russia “has always been authoritarian in its own historical way” and is now simply “asserting its political traditions”, explained Pomar, now a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas.

Arguably, RFE/RL’s departure from Russia could have been predicted as early as 2002. This year saw Putin revoke President Boris Yeltsin’s 1991 decree that allowed the American broadcaster to open a “permanent” office in Russia, “because of its role in the objective coverage of the march of the democratic processes”.

Putin has reversed these processes, thereby making RFE/RL not only irrelevant but now an outright threat to his regime. The Russian government has pushed through five dangerous statutes over the last decade that are meant to restrict and ultimately banish foreign media from the country.

  • The first of these is the 2012 “foreign agent” statute, which was recently amended in 2020. This law demands that foreign media must label every text, video, audio and social media release as “fulfilling the function of a foreign agent”. This suggests to Russians that everything foreign should not be trusted and is harmful to the country.
  • The second is the catch-all 2012 “Dima Yakovlev Law”, which was updated in 2015. It permits the Ministry of Justice to indefinitely suspend non-commercial organisations (NCOs) taking part in “a political activity”, as well as anything that is considered “a threat to the interests” of Russia and receives funds or property from American entities or citizens. The law also prohibits foreign NCOs from establishing mass media outlets. The provisions added in 2015 specify what “undesirable activity” may be banned when “published by a foreign or international non-governmental organisation… as well [its] production or storage”.
  • The 2013 Federal Statue on Information, which was amended in 2017 and again in 2019, is third in the Kremlin’s line-up of weapons designed to restrict foreign media. It allows Russian authorities to apply fines and other measures against those distributing online information “with calls to mass disorder, to conduct extremist activity and to participate in mass (public) events held in violation of established procedure”. Information from “undesirable” foreign organisations is now also illegal.  The law also forbids the “dissemination of knowingly inaccurate, socially significant information under the guise of reliable messages”.
  • To ensure the Russian media’s ‘purity’, the 2014 Media Statute and its 2017 revisions dramatically limit foreign investments in and ownership of Russian media.
  • Lastly, the 2018 Statute on Countermeasures is specifically meant to “counter” the “unfriendly” actions taken by Washington and other nations against controversial Russian organisations such as Sputnik and RT.

Violating its own constitution and international obligations and commitments

The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation upheld the legality of the statutes. Despite this, Andrei Richter has noted that this decision was not unanimous. Richter is a media law expert, former professor at Moscow State University and advisor to the OCSE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

According to one spokesperson from the US Department of State, the US is certain that Russia is violating its own constitution. Furthermore, by challenging freedom of expression, Moscow is disregarding “the country’s international obligations and commitments”.

Predictably, RFE/RL’s President Jamie Fly agrees and considers the regulations “a state sponsored assault on media freedom that violates the Russian Constitution and Russia’s media law”.

While there is now no Soviet style jamming of foreign broadcasting or Gosteleradio, the communist broadcasting censor, Russia is attempting to censor the Internet. Roskomnadzor, the state’s enforcer of media-related legislation, recorded hundreds of occasions in which RFE/RL violated the “foreign agent” statute since the start of the year. The federal executive body subsequently imposed fines totaling 2.3 million dollars on the broadcaster. To date, Russian courts have rejected all appeals by the American media group.

What can be done

“My sense is that this has to be dealt with at the political level. If not at the presidential level than at the [US] Secretary of State one”, concludes Pomar.

The US Department of State has not indicated what steps it might take in response to Russia’s actions. However, a spokesperson has said that it “is deeply concerned by Russia’s increasingly repressive efforts to clamp down on the exercise of freedom of expression, including members of the press”.  

The representative went on to say that the expanded reach and employment of the “foreign agents” statute is a “blatant effort to further excessively monitor, regulate, and restrict the activities and freedom of expression for members of Russia’s civil society, independent media, political opposition, and other independent voices”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed his “concern over Russia’s efforts to close Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and silence this valued source of independent reporting”. It is not clear whether the new sanctions, which were imposed on Russia on April 15th for a number of “malign” actions, also include the Kremlin’s war against the American broadcaster.

RFE/RL’s imminent exit from Russia will affect its nearly seven million-strong audience and millions more who follow its Current Time network. It may also affect the group’s Tatar-Bashkir and Ukrainian services. The related Crimea.Realities project, too, as well as Polygraph.info, a fact-checking website focused on Russia, may be affected.

On a positive note…

Pomar does see an upside to RFE/RL’s current troubles. He argues that “When you have a bureau you are also tied down by that”. The former director also stated that moving to another country can help you “re-think the way you are going to have to do the program… there are a lot of things that you can do”.

According to Pomar, the RFE/RL president “is facing a reality that every other Western organisation has faced [in Russia] and so the only thing that the US can do is learn lessons from the Cold War”. RFE/RL could subsequently take on subjects that the Russians are trying to control and open them up. So, take for example WWII. They have created this phenomenal myth about the war, which runs counter to the Polish experience, the Czech experience, the Baltics’ experience, the Ukrainian or the American one”.  

Of course, there are hundreds of topics to be addressed regarding this era. This includes the 1940 Katyn massacre of over 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals, the new myth of Stalin, his repression, the gulags, and the dissidents that, according to Pomar, “plenty of Russians don’t know about”. He has argued that these important subjects should be discussed alongside hundreds of others that Moscow “wants to sanitise”.

As always, the question of funding will be crucial to RFE/RL’s ability to deal with the challenges of running a restricted service in Russia or from outside the country. Ted Lipien, a former RFE/RL president, says that the broadcaster needs additional funding specifically earmarked for its Russian service. This is in contrast to “allowing the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) to make critical decisions about Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) and Current Time in Russia from the remote and over-bureaucratised bubble in Washington”.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, then senator Joe Biden saved RFE/RL from being defunded by Congress in the name of a “peace dividend”. Pomar now hopes that President Biden will involve himself in the broadcaster’s struggle with the Kremlin and its attempts to remove the operation from Russia. If that fails, he believes that “certain steps can be taken to at least make it a bit painful for Russia to do this”.  

With the sanctions that have already been imposed, it is unclear how Washington can further punish Russia for its recent attacks on free media. Moscow’s moves have included eliminating media freedoms, arresting and assassinating dissidents, cyber-hacking, waging information war, and interfering in elections. Despite the presence of an active opposition in the country, history has shown that Russia does not mind autocratic leadership and can take a whole lot of punishment.

Peter Gross Ph.D., is professor emeritus and former Director of the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media (2006-2016). He is a non-resident Fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society, the Central European University (Vienna, Austria), and Co-Editor of the Journal of Romanian Studies(2020-2023). He has written extensively on the subject of East, Central and Southeast European media and their evolution since 1989.

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