Kremlin bears down on Moscow bureau of US-funded radio station
In 1991, Boris Yeltsin gave Radio Liberty, the US government-funded broadcaster that had fought for decades to bypass Soviet jamming equipment, permission to open its own Moscow bureau. Now, 30 years later, the Kremlin looks close to shutting it down.
A deadline for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to pay the first of an estimated $2.4m (£1.7m) in fines will pass for the foreign broadcaster next week, threatening its bureau in Russia with potential police raids, blocked bank accounts, or the arrest of senior employees.
RFE/RL says it will not pay the fines, which have accrued for its refusal to brand all its digital and video content as the product of a “foreign agent”. Roskomnadzor, the Russian mass media regulator, has initiated 520 cases against the broadcaster so far, and that number appears likely to grow.
“They either want us to lose our physical presence in the country or neuter us, render us ineffective and not engaging with our audience,” said Jamie Fly, the broadcaster’s president. “That’s the choice they are trying to force on us.”
RFE/RL has aggressively grown its operation in Russia, investing heavily in digital media and in building out its network of freelancers and reporting in Russia’s regions, including a recent expose on the industrial-scale theft of oil from the country’s network of pipelines. It has also provided blanket coverage of the arrest of Alexei Navalny, covering his return from Germany and subsequent street protests among his supporters to demand his release from prison.
“We’ve been increasingly successful in television in the past few years, covering every Moscow protest, by covering the Belarus protest,” said Kiryl Sukhotski, RFE/RL’s regional director for Europe and TV production. “When Navalny was returning to Russia, we were in Berlin, we were on his plane, we streamed [his arrest] live and the following protests … that was watched by 42 million across our platforms. This is what the Russian government probably sees as a threat.”
Anticipating a crackdown, RFE/RL has begun relocating some staff and equipment to its main newsroom in Prague and its bureau in Kyiv. The staff transfers, which were first reported by the BBC Russian service, have been controversial. One employee told the Guardian the mood in the newsroom was “grim, some people are angry”, while a second said there was concern that the organisation was signalling it was giving in by moving staff employees abroad. Several others said they had been asked not to speak to press about the situation.
“We’ve made very clear to our team in Moscow that we want to keep the bureau open, we’re fighting to keep it open,” said Fly, who confirmed the transfer of some key personnel and equipment to “maintain continuity in programming” but declined to go into detail. “If the Russian authorities think that somehow they’re going to force us out without actually doing it themselves, that we will pre-emptively leave the country, then they’re sadly mistaken. We are going to stay in Moscow.”
The broadcaster is at the intersection of two Kremlin targets: the US, whom Vladimir Putin has accused of stirring up internal dissent, and critical media outlets caught in an accelerating crackdown.
RFE/RL and its affiliates were among the first Russian-language media to be branded “foreign agents” in 2017. Russian officials called it a “symmetrical response” to a requirement that RT, the state-funded news agency, register its US entity under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. RFE/RL has rejected the comparison between the two news agencies, saying they have greater editorial independence and that Russian state media are still able to broadcast on radio and cable television in the US and have less onerous labelling requirements. “There is no parity,” Fly argued.
Last year, the Russian government required all “foreign agent” media to affix a text, audio, or a 15-second video warning to all of its content, something that Sukhotski called a “significant escalation … They are equal to introducing the Russian state into our editorial content. And we can’t allow that.”
In a major decision last week, Meduza, a leading Russian news site headquartered in Riga, was also declared a foreign agent. Unlike RFE/RL, the site quickly took precautionary measures, affixing a disclaimer to its online content and even its tweets (that content has been displayed in the Comic Sans font with several facepalm emojis).
But even if they are not fined for violations of the law, the site’s editors have warned that the decision will bankrupt the site, driving away its advertisers and convincing sources that they are collaborating with enemies of the state. They have launched a crowdfunding campaign to try to keep it open.
“No media outlet saddled with the ‘foreign agent’ label can practise full-fledged journalism,” wrote Ivan Kolpakov, the site’s editor-in-chief, in a public statement. This designation destroys our business … Make no mistake: the authorities’ goal is to kill Meduza.”
Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said: “The current mass media market is such that a disappearance of any particular mass media outlet will not matter. Nobody would even feel that disappearance.”
Other journalists critical of the government have also been targeted by police in recent weeks. Police have raided the offices and detained journalists from the student publication Doxa and also raided the offices and home of Roman Anin, a Russian investigative journalist, as part of a slander case related to his investigation into a top Putin ally’s wealth. Police have also arrested reporters who covered protests in support of Navalny, despite their being accredited journalists.
RFE/RL’s future in Russia remains unclear, but its executives argue that its network of journalists and modern technology will make it impossible for the Kremlin to cut off its reporting from the country altogether.
“Obviously in our early decades we mostly operated outside the countries we broadcast to and we did that effectively,” said Fly, noting closed markets such as Iran and Turkmenistan, as well as expulsions from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan in the past. “That’s part of our DNA … If anything, we will double down and expand our efforts to reach the Russian audience.”
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