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Russia's Signal to Stations Is Clear: Cut U.S. Radio

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 7, 2006; A01

MOSCOW, July 6 -- Russian regulators have forced more than 60 radio stations to stop broadcasting news reports produced by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, according to radio managers and Russian officials.

The regulators cited license violations and unauthorized changes in programming format. But senior executives at the U.S.-government-funded broadcast services and at the stations blame the Kremlin for the crackdown, which has knocked the reports off stations from St. Petersburg in western Russia to Vladivostok in the Far East.

"We focus primarily on domestic developments, and those are exactly the things the Kremlin has problems with," said Jeffrey N. Trimble, acting president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- commonly known as Radio Liberty. "This really hurts our ability to reach today's decision-makers."

The two services' straight-up reporting, often by journalists on the ground in Russian communities, has at times challenged the political establishment here. In a country where the news media increasingly avoid controversial subjects, millions of Russians had made the broadcasts a listening staple.

U.S. diplomats, managers at the two news services and their board of governors have held repeated discussions with Russian officials in recent months seeking a compromise, to no avail. "We've tried to be collegial, tried to work within the system, but this is a most unfortunate development," said Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees both services.

Later this month, the leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries will gather for a summit hosted by Russia in St. Petersburg. The meeting has prompted increased scrutiny here and abroad of the Kremlin's steps to consolidate power since the late 1990s.

Control of the mass media, particularly news and debate on national television channels, is a critical part of the Kremlin's management of political discourse in advance of parliamentary elections in 2007 and presidential elections in 2008.

After Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, the country's major TV channels, the most important media because of their reach, were quickly brought under state control or shut down. State-controlled or state-friendly businesses have been buying up newspapers and radio stations. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, media outlets routinely come under the sway of local governors, most of whom are loyal to the Kremlin.

Independent newspapers and radio stations continue to operate. But with their largest audiences in the country's two largest cities, their influence in national politics and voting is marginal.

Radio Liberty and Voice of America are underwritten by the U.S. government but produce independent journalism in many languages, including Russian, though the White House has proposed ending Voice of America's Russian-language content. Both services developed a network of media partners across Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Those stations had been airing about an hour of news from the services in the morning and evening, along with some shorter bulletins.

Of the 30 affiliate stations Radio Liberty had in Russia in 2005, it now has only four, according to Trimble. Of the 42 stations that rebroadcast material from Voice of America in 2005, only five are still working with the organization, according to the board of governors.

Russian stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where there is much greater official tolerance for media diversity, continue to broadcast programming from the organizations. Radio Liberty also operates its own frequency in Moscow. "But elections are won and lost in the provinces," said a manager at Radio Liberty.

The first sign of the change came last September, when the Culture Ministry, which handles the licensing of broadcasters, began a series of audits of these stations and others.

In interviews, officials at the ministry characterized the audits as a normal and legal part of the ministry's mission and said there was no targeted attempt to force the American radio services off the air.

Rather, they said, officials were ensuring compliance with Russian law, which states that when broadcasters obtain their licenses they must indicate whether they intend to re-broadcast material from other entities. None of the affected stations had followed the law, officials said.

"We do not have any problem with Radio Liberty or Voice of America," said Yevgeny Strelchik, an adviser to the Culture Ministry's top mass media official. "But if our radio stations change their concept, they should say so, and then the commission will decide whether to approve it or not. They can't broadcast somebody else's product without having the license for it. . . . This is the law."

He also said: "You should ask the general director of Radio Russia how hard it is to get a license to broadcast in the U.S. He tried many times. Their requirements are much stricter."

Russian partners of the U.S. services said in interviews that they valued the American programming but feared they would lose their licenses if they continued to carry it. Managers and journalists at Russian stations said they felt clear pressure from bureaucrats to drop the programming and to make no attempt to get a license that would allow the American material to remain on the air. Two stations that did apply for revised licenses to broadcast Radio Liberty were denied, according to U.S. and Russian officials.

One radio manager said: "Of course, I felt the pressure. . . . They never tell you anything directly. Instead they come up with numerous complaints trying to find faults, they start their checkups, they would be looking at your license over and over again. But the message is clear."

Management and employees at the station spoke on condition that they and their stations not be identified, because they feared that if they commented publicly, their stations would be shut down.

"It's sad because the programs were very popular," said a manager at another station. "The owners decided that they would rather have their license, because if they kept the programming they would have been in trouble."

Radio Liberty, with about 60 staff journalists in Russia and nearly 200 freelance contributors, is one of largest news organizations in the country.

Last year Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky interviewed Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord who asserts responsibility for the hostage-taking at a school in Beslan, which ended with the deaths of 331 people, most of them schoolchildren. Radio Liberty opted not to run the material, but it was later broadcast on ABC's "Nightline." The Russian government was outraged and decided not to renew the accreditations of ABC journalists.

Staff and management at Radio Liberty, Voice of America and their board of governors suspect that the dispute led the ministry to act against the news organizations.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company