Kremlin Escalates Fight With U.S. Funded Journalists, Officials Say
The fight over the future of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has significant implications for press freedom across Russia.,
WASHINGTON — When Jamie Fly, the chief executive of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, visited Moscow in January 2020 to promote his news outlet’s popularity in Russia, he said he received an ominous message from the Kremlin’s top spokesman.
“We know how successful you’ve been,” Mr. Fly recalled the spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, saying to him in a private conversation. “We’re watching very closely.” (Mr. Peskov confirmed that the conversation took place, but said that “much else was discussed” and that “nothing ominous was said.”)
In the months since, Radio Free Europe, which is funded by the U.S. government, has entered a standoff with the Russian government. The battle revolves around a Russian law requiring that the organization label itself a “foreign agent.” Doing so, Radio Free Europe officials said, would drive away its audience and hinder its ability to report the news — and could effectively shut down its Russian operation.
As of Friday, they added, Russian officials have initiated legal action against the outlet and frozen its bank accounts until it pays roughly $67,000 of $2.4 million in estimated total fines for not complying with the law. Officials for the organization said they did not plan to pay, adding that if the pressure campaign continued, its reporters could face jail time or criminal prosecution.
The fight over the organization’s future also has significant implications for press freedom in Russia, where many independent news outlets have managed to survive online despite Moscow’s efforts to stifle dissent. In recent weeks, the Russian authorities have begun to use the “foreign agent” rule against other popular online publications — making Radio Free Europe’s battle a test case for the Kremlin’s widening crackdown on journalists.
“It is not just RFE/RL’s physical presence inside Russia that is at stake here,” Mr. Fly said in an interview, “but whether the Russian people will be able to continue to freely access objective news and information during what has the potential to be a momentous period in their country.”
The issue poses a diplomatic challenge for the Biden administration, which is unsure how effective it can be in stopping Moscow’s actions. State Department officials have said they are aware of Radio Free Europe’s plight and are “deeply troubled” by Russia’s decision to freeze its bank account. They have also said the U.S. government will respond if Russia forcibly shuts down the organization, but provided no details on possible action.
“Ultimately, Moscow is doing what Moscow will do,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at a virtual event last month honoring World Press Freedom Day. “But we’re trying to make sure that, at least in some ways, we can be supportive and helpful even if our advocacy falls on deaf ears in Moscow itself.”
Maria V. Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, has dismissed Washington’s concerns. “The complaints about the obstruction of journalistic work in Russia are a fiction and a lie,” she said last week during a news conference. “We welcome the activities of the U.S. media in our country.”
U.S. officials and press freedom activists say that Moscow’s demand that independent news outlets like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty identify as foreign agents is a bureaucratic attempt to stifle coverage that Russian citizens depend on to follow anticorruption protests and the treatment of Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader.
“The term ‘foreign agent’ brings back memories from the times of Joseph Stalin, when there were witch hunts of so-called foreign agents or spies,” Gulnoza Said, an activist with the Committee to Protect Journalists, which promotes press freedom, said in an interview. “A lot of people may stop watching videos or reading content that has that label.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which started early in the Cold War nearly 70 years ago, was initially funded by the C.I.A. to counter the spread of communism. Today, it receives nearly $125 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for Global Media, an independent federal agency, and operates in 27 languages in 23 countries, with over 600 full-time journalists and 1,300 freelance reporters on payroll, agency statistics show.
In 1991, President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia invited the outlet to open a bureau in Moscow. Today, the Russian service has a $22 million budget and employs 58 full-time reporters and 250 freelance journalists. It also operates a Russian-language TV channel, Current Time, in partnership with Voice of America.
Despite the U.S. funding, Radio Free Europe says it is editorially independent by virtue of an American law amended in 1994 that prevents U.S. officials from tampering with its news operations.
However, the Trump administration rescinded that rule in October, raising concerns that political appointees could more easily interfere in editorial decisions. In 2019, State Department officials, news media observers and a panel of academics raised concerns that the outlet’s network in Tajikistan took a pro-government stance in its reporting.
Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, said that even though Radio Free Europe had editorial firewall provisions in place, there was no denying that “they are state media.” She could not say if Russia’s foreign agent law was an appropriate way to achieve transparency, but said readers there should know the outlet’s funding source.
As of May, Radio Free Europe officials said it had been fined by Russia’s regulator of news media, Roskomnadzor, over 500 times for not complying with its foreign agent law.
The law requires Radio Free Europe to post a 24-word message on all its news content, including social media posts, that says a foreign mass media outlet acting as a foreign agent is disseminating the information.
Kiryl Sukhotski, the regional director of Radio Free Europe’s European division, said complying with the law was not an option because the strong historical connotations surrounding the “foreign agent” label was likely to hinder its ability to gather news. Others at the outlet have said it would reduce its ability to engage with its audience.
At the same time, Russia has widened its focus to other news outlets, which have far less money and diplomatic muscle behind them to weather the Kremlin’s pressure.
In recent weeks, Meduza and VTimes, independent Russian news sites, have become subject to the foreign agent law. The designation threatens their financial future and affects their ability to report, officials at both companies said. Meduza has appealed the decision, and its advertisers have already become wary. In response, it has closed some of its offices and cut staff salaries by up to 50 percent, officials said. Both outlets are crowdfunding to sustain operations.
Damelya Aitkhozhina, a Russia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the effect of Russia’s broader pressure campaign could be grave. “Sooner or later there will be no one to provide access to balanced information,” she said. “Seems like the Kremlin is actively working toward that.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s reporting has provided coverage of key events in the region, including Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, pro-democracy protests in Belarus last year and anti-Kremlin protests this year prompted by the jailing of Mr. Navalny.
In January 2021, during the outlet’s coverage of the Navalny protests, its Russian service website drew 17 million visits and 27.5 million page views, a record high, Radio Free Europe statistics show.
Despite the figures — which may indicate curiosity or one-time interest in large events — it is difficult to determine exactly how much Russians trust news outlets funded by the U.S. government. Years of Russian state television attacking the United States has fostered distrust.
Russia’s focus on Radio Free Europe largely started in 2017, when the Justice Department under the Trump administration required RT, a Russian-funded news outlet, to register as a foreign agent under U.S. law. Shortly after, Russian officials amended their foreign agent law to include mass media in response.
In Russia, foreign agents must regularly file financial disclosure and activity forms. The authorities can suspend an outlet’s work at any time, and any violations can bring fines and jail time. The United States requires similar disclosure reports, and business records must be available for inspection by the Justice Department. Violations can also mean fines and jail time.
But the difference is in how the law is carried out, news media experts have said.
In Russia, they said, the violations are more rigorously enforced. Because an outlet is required to so prominently label its content with the foreign agent disclosure, that turns away readers and advertisers, risking its financial future. Audiences are also more afraid to browse the content and engage with its reporters.
“You’re de facto unable to operate in Russia,” said Alina Polyakova, the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis. “You’re persona non grata.”
It is unclear where Russia’s foreign agent law ranks in the Biden administration’s diplomatic agenda, free press activists said. U.S. officials said that Mr. Blinken had raised concerns with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said that the “fight for truth and information” was central to the power competition between the two countries.
“There’s an ideological dimension to our contest,” he said in an interview. “It should be a very high priority.”
Ivan Nechepurenko and Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Moscow.