by Ted Lipien in The Washington Examiner
May 03, 2021
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where I served briefly as president and CEO until earlier this year, is under assault by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Through his agencies and obedient courts, he is blackmailing the media organization funded by U.S. taxpayers, issuing fines and threats of criminal prosecutions unless Radio Liberty agrees to play by his rules. Because of the actions already taken by the Kremlin, RFE/RL is facing a defining choice: whether to keep its news bureau staff in Moscow (along with its freelance reporters) or to reduce its presence in Putin’s Russia.
I’m encouraged to see that Jamie Fly, my predecessor and successor as RFE/RL’s president, has strongly rejected the latest court fines against the U.S. tax-funded international multimedia broadcaster, but the Biden administration and Congress will have to do much more to counter Russian authorities’ attempts to undermine the work of Radio Liberty journalists. The White House and Congress need to agree on a rescue package to continue RFE/RL’s news coverage from Russia if its staff reporters and some freelancers have to leave the country to avoid going to prison.
Under Putin’s blackmail, the broadcaster’s choice is that it can either label its programs as produced by “foreign agents” and that individual Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) Russian and even Ukrainian reporters have to declare themselves as “foreign agents,” or it can do most of its Russian coverage from abroad as it had done during the Cold War.
Working from abroad, even with the help of citizen journalists and volunteers in Russia, will be much more difficult and costly, but it may also be more liberating for Radio Liberty’s Russian staff than constantly having to watch their backs and worrying what Putin’s secret police might do next. Even working abroad does not offer perfect protection, but it is safer than working in Putin’s Russia.
To no surprise to observers of Soviet and Putin’s propaganda, the Kremlin’s disinformation machine is attempting to sell the new media law in Russia as a response to foreign agent registration requirements in the United States affecting Russian state outlets such as RT. It is important to point out, however, that the new Russian “foreign agent” labeling mandates, which have triggered the latest crisis, are nowhere similar to what RT or Sputnik correspondents in the U.S. are required to do.
It is also important to know that reciprocity and legal subtleties do not matter to Putin. He probably doesn’t care much about RT’s ability to broadcast in the U.S. since his propaganda experts found more effective ways of surreptitiously interfering in America’s politics using social media and less sophisticated “experts” who are duped into spreading the Kremlin’s messages under the label of “balanced” analysis and news.
Admittedly, the move to reduce RFE/RL’s legal presence and operations in Russia carries an enormous personal cost for individual Radio Liberty employees who are Russian citizens. Not all of them may want to leave their own country, and those who leave may face arrest if they try to return.
RFE/RL must above all make sure that its employees are safe. Russia is not at present a safe place for journalists or supporters of freedom and democracy. Radio Liberty’s dedicated and courageous staffers deserve the best treatment from their American employer. Congress may have to move quickly to provide additional funding to pay for any relocation costs and to compensate for new hardships.
It is no doubt easier to cover the news with staff reporters and freelancers who are present in the country, but not if it requires self-censorship. If Putin wants to play hardball, Radio Liberty can show him that it can do its job even better from the outside with the help of volunteers and citizen journalists in Russia and some of the best Russia experts in the West who are not afraid of Putin.
Above all else, RFE/RL cannot and must not label Radio Liberty website for Crimea to be in compliance with Russia’s media law. Doing so would mean a recognition of Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Ukrainian territory — something that no U.S. taxpayer-supported media outlet should ever do.
RFE/RL can, in fact, turn this latest crisis to its advantage. With extra funding from Congress and by switching resources from producing English-language content, which often duplicates the work of private Western media, Radio Liberty can hire more Russian investigative reporters, some of them former RFE/RL journalists and contributors, to focus on the enormous corruption within Putin’s government, secret services, and business empire. Shining the light on his abuses of power is the best way to respond to the Russian autocrat’s war on Radio Liberty.
Ted Lipien is a journalist, writer, and media freedom advocate. He was Voice of America’s Polish service chief during Poland’s struggle for democracy and VOA’s acting associate director. He also served briefly in 2020-2021 as RFE/RL’s president.