The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Kremlin tries to stifle Radio Free Europe — and its audience surges

As the U.S.-funded broadcaster is forced to shut most of its Russian operations, its Web traffic indicates that Russian people are eagerly consuming its stories

Russian citizens in Moscow lead a protest of their country’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 27. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has noticed a surge of interest its stories about the war even as the Kremlin has tried to restrict its operations. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

Radio Free Europe, the U.S.-funded operation that got its start by piping American-flavored news through the Iron Curtain in 1950, could see big trouble brewing for its Russian operation in recent years.

The Kremlin kept putting the screws to its Russian-language broadcasts, throwing up ever more regulatory hurdles. But it was in late 2020 that the hammer really came down. The “media regulator” demanded that every broadcast, digital story and video carry an intrusive disclaimer at the top stating that what followed was the product of a foreign agent.

“Basically, it was like telling our audience to go away,” said Jamie Fly, the CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as the organization has been known since a 1976 merger.

That labeling would interfere with the private nonprofit’s mission at a core level. So, Fly told me, “we refused to comply.”

What followed was a storm of fines — eventually, $13 million worth. In May 2021, bailiffs arrived at the network’s Moscow bureau to start enforcement efforts to collect the fines.

The timing seemed anything but coincidental. The Russian government started bankruptcy proceedings just as the Ukraine war was beginning last month. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — which receives much of its funding from the same U.S. agency that oversees Voice of America — shut down much of its operations in Russia just as many international journalists were forced to flee the country, social media platforms were blocked or banned, and Russia’s independent media was being silenced.

It’s all part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to wage information warfare within Russia to eliminate any possible contradiction of the party line that the Ukrainian incursion isn’t an invasion or a war, but a “special military operation” necessary for national security.

But the story didn’t end there. The Russian people are searching for information, however they can. The proof is in the numbers, Fly told me.

In the first three weeks after the invasion, page views from Russia to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty sites skyrocketed to 26 million, more than 50 percent more than an earlier corresponding period. Video views from Russia to their YouTube channels more than tripled to 237 million. And this was happening despite sites being blocked within Russia.

“Despite the Kremlin pressure, people are still hungry for the truth,” Fly told me. “To some extent, they see through the propaganda, and they want to explore broader sources of information.”

He and his colleagues are particularly proud of the on-the-ground reporting in Ukraine, such as a March 10 video headlined “Ukrainian Troops Attempt to Drive Russian Forces from Village Near Kyiv.” There have been thorough reports about civilian deaths in Mariupol and about mortar fire directed at the Ukrainian interior minister and journalists.

Many listeners and viewers are getting around Russia’s media barricades through the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) and “mirror sites” that duplicate content but use a different URL.

This reminds Fly of how Russians during the Cold War would try to tune in Radio Free Europe by fiddling with the radio dial: The Kremlin habitually changed the frequencies in an attempt to obscure what it considered dangerous American propaganda. “Unfortunately, we’re going back to our roots,” he said.

There’s been a price to pay beyond the monetary fines and regulatory hassles. In recent weeks, four freelance journalists who work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have been detained or harassed by Russian police. Many others have been labeled individual foreign agents.

“It’s scary, but total information control was always the goal,” Fly told me. The organization has filed suit against the Russian government at the European Court of Human Rights, though it’s unclear how a verdict would be implemented.

(Against the evidence, the Kremlin has long denied inhibiting press rights in Russia. Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, last year deemed complaints about the obstruction of journalistic work “a fiction and a lie,” insisting that “we welcome the activities of the U.S. media in our country.”)

Suspending the Moscow bureau after 31 years of operation was a tough blow, Fly told me. But through freelancers, tips and videos generated by the audience and other means, “we’re still trying to report from the ground and we’re not abandoning the Russian audience.”

If information is power, this is a power struggle for the ages.

READ MORE by Margaret Sullivan:

What you can do to help save Ukraine from a looming news apocalypse

Russia’s new control tactic is the one Hannah Arendt warned us about 50 years ago

Putin’s full-scale information war got a key assist from Donald Trump and right-wing media