One of my commentaries on media censorship in Vladimir Putin’s Russia was first published in Digital Journal on September 16, 2009 as “Op-Ed: From Russia with Censorship.” Since then, both the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Liberty (known in Russia as Radio Svoboda) have improved their Russian coverage, but Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is now facing a defining choice whether to comply with President Putin’s new restrictive, deceptive and humiliating media law or to close down its legal entity and its large bureau in Moscow. A decision to leave would limit opportunities for covering Russian news and create a great hardship for Radio Liberty journalists who live in Russia. On the other hand, complying with new restrictions would undermine Radio Liberty’s reputation and credibility and invite further pressure and demands from the Kremlin. One of Putin’s aims is to get RFE/RL to acknowledge his illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by forcing the station to make Radio Liberty’s Crimea website comply with the Russian law. I strongly believe that RFE/RL should never agree to such a demand.
RFE/RL has the option to limit its exposure to Putin’s legal blackmail, scale down its official presence and operations in Russia, and cover the country mostly from abroad while relying on the help of Russia-based independent citizen journalists.
Some in Washington argue that a decision to close down the official presence in Russia would be a defeat for RFE/RL and a humiliation for the Biden administration. I believe that it would be, both in the short run and in the long run, a much greater defeat and a much greater humiliation for Putin.
I also have little hope that the Biden administration or the U.S. Congress have sufficient leverage and can persuade Putin to compromise on the implementation of the media law, which I believe he himself crafted to humiliate the United States and help himself politically in Russia. Someone who imprisons his political opponents is hardly in the mood to compromise to help an American-funded media outlet or any independent news organization. I fear that any compromise with Putin, even if it were possible, would be harmful to RFE/RL’s journalistic independence.
For more information and views on the current crisis, see my recent Washington Examiner op-ed: “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty must not submit to Putin’s blackmail,” by Ted Lipien, January 27, 2021. In 2018, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) $800 million federal agency funding (with congressional appropriations), overseeing and increasingly micromanaging both VOA and RFE/RL, changed its name to U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). I served briefly as RFE/RL President in December 2020-January 2021 and had earlier a longterm career as a VOA journalist and editor, BBG regional media marketing director, and VOA program manager and acting associate director.
Op-Ed: From Russia with Censorship | Digital Journal
Censorship from Russia comes home to America in profit-oriented decisions by American companies and sometimes even US government agencies, a San Francisco-based media freedom NGO has documented and reported [in September 2009].
Few of us in the media freedom community were particularly surprised that Conde Nast publishers banned an article by freelance journalist Scott Anderson from appearing in the Russian edition of the GQ magazine. The article dealt with the radioactive topic in Mr. Putin’s Russia of a possible involvement of the security service, the FSB, in deadly apartment building bombings in 1999, which the Kremlin blames on Chechen terrorists and who were the most likely perpetrators. There have been persistent though unconfirmed rumors, however, that rogue elements within the FSB may have directly or indirectly instigated some of these attacks to advance their own interests and the political career of their fellow ex-spy Vladimir Putin.
Shortly after the attacks, in which 300 people died, a bomb was defused by the local police, and the trail of evidence led to the door of the FSB, which admitted that it was part of “an ill-conceived exercise.” Similarities to the real bombings were disturbing.
Journalists have an obligation to critically examine such information to see whether it’s true or not, but in Russia this topic has been placed off-limits by the Kremlin, many journalists have been killed, their murders remain unsolved, and self-censorship is rampant. The Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, an international nonprofit organization, blames the current Russian leadership for helping to create a climate of fear among journalists in Russia.
Americans should be deeply concerned when US-owned businesses join forces with the Kremlin and Chinese communists in silencing free press. It seems that in the Conde Nast case, self-censorship affected not only the GQ edition in Russia but the GQ US website as well. These corporate executives are helping the Kremlin to bring censorship from Russia to the US and to the rest of the world.
In its efforts to publicize this problem, FreeMediaOnline.org has uncovered that it took several days for the US taxpayer-funded Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) to start reporting on this story on its Russian website [in 2009], and we wondered why. In the meantime, independent bloggers in the US and in Russia had already translated the censored article into Russian and posted it online. Thank you for doing what we assumed was the job of Radio Liberty and the Voice of America.
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, RFE/RL, and the Voice of America, VOA, are managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, BBG, which several years ago made a strategic decision to broadcast Radio Liberty programs from within Russia. No doubt the BBG now wants to protect its capital investments and operations placed within the walking distance of the FSB headquarters in Moscow. We have criticized this worst-managed Federal agency for not protecting its Russian reporters from harassment by the secret police.
The BBG kept expanding Radio Liberty’s operations in Russia even as they were being sabotaged by the FSB. At the same time, these bipartisan political appointees — some with business links to Russia — terminated all Russian-language radio broadcasts by the Voice of America from Washington, DC. They made the move to end these VOA programs just 12 days before the Russian military launched an attack on Georgia last year.
In her op-ed column in the Washington Post, “Chipping Away At Free Speech,” Anne Applebaum wrote: “There is no law or edict that can force these companies, or any American company, to abide by the principles of free speech abroad. But at least it is possible to embarrass them at home.”
It’s the only way we can hope to prevent fearful businessmen and government bureaucrats from helping the Kremlin in spreading censorship in Russia and abroad. The more people know about this problem, the more likely we are to succeed.
Please share this article with others to honor the memory of Paul Klebnikov, Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova and 14 other journalists murdered in Russia since the year 2000 [until September 2009] for doing their jobs. You will be helping to advance the cause of free press for which they paid with their lives.
Featured Photo: President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at his dacha outside Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).