The leaders of the news organization, which opened its Moscow bureau shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, is facing millions of dollars in fines, an uphill battle in the Russian court system and the possible physical shuttering of its offices in Russia for the first time, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said on Monday. Russian authorities have frozen the news organization’s Russian bank accounts and sent court bailiffs to the offices twice to begin enforcement procedures, as part of a campaign to censor the news organization’s content and diminish its reach to Russian news consumers.
“We expect that it’s only a matter of time before they come in and seize our equipment in the bureau and possibly seal the bureau,” said Fly. “It’s a currently dire situation that we face with that bureau and also with our ability to carry out our journalism for the Russian people.”
The fines, which have reached $3.4 million, are the Russian government’s punishment for RFE/RL refusing to comply with new labeling requirements forcing them to display a “foreign agent” disclaimer atop all their articles and for 15 seconds at the start of every Internet video. Fly called this an intentional and effective way to drive away RFE/RL’s audience, which he said now includes more than 6.7 million Russian citizens.
Russian authorities justify the new rules as a response to the U.S. government applying new reporting restrictions on Russian state media under the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act. Fly called the comparison unfair, considering that Russian media outlets in the United States have no restrictions on their actual content and there’s no U.S. government action to actively limit their audience. Quite the opposite is the case in Russia, where RFE/RL has already lost radio licenses and has been blocked from television, cable and satellite packages, relegating it to mostly online distribution.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised this issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they met last month in Iceland, but that doesn’t seem to have done the trick. If Biden doesn’t convince Putin this is something his administration really cares about, Putin will have no incentive to back off.
“We just want to be able to employ our journalists inside Russia, do our journalism without interference from any government, whether it’s the U.S. government or the Russian government in this case,” said Fly. “We just ask that the president make clear [to Putin] that this action is unacceptable.”
If Putin does complete his effort to push RFE/RL out of Russia, the news organization will continue to cover the country through its network of journalists there, even without a physical bureau, said Fly. Even now, those journalists are also coming under increased threat. One RFE/RL freelance political reporter was beaten up while on assignment in eastern Russia just last week, said Andrei Shary, director of RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
And the closing of RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau could set a bad precedent with implications for the organization’s operations in other countries, as well. Currently, its reporters are operating in Belarus without official licenses and the Belarusian government is becoming increasingly aggressive against journalists and activists. Roman Protasevich, who was pulled off a commercial plane forced to land by Belarusian authorities last month, showed up this week at a news conference where he fulsomely praised the government, apparently under duress.
“Journalists are frightened,” said Shary. “It’s a situation where independent journalists are easy targets. . . . That’s why the space for freedom of speech and freedom of the press is more and more limited in Russia. Nevertheless, we do our jobs.”
Even Biden’s words may be unconvincing to Putin unless backed up by the threat of real action. Reciprocal punishments on Russian outlets may not be the right answer, because that path leads to the United States becoming the thing we are fighting, a closed society that treats foreign journalists poorly. A better approach would be targeted sanctions on those Russian officials directly involved in the Russian government’s crackdown on independent media in Russia, which expands well beyond RFE/RL.
Biden and Putin have a crowded agenda for Wednesday’s meeting in Geneva, but this issue ought to be on it, along with other human rights issues, such as Putin’s ever-increasing appetite for jailing his political opponents, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny. President Donald Trump made clear to Putin that he personally didn’t care about any of these things. Biden’s task is to convince Putin that the United States as a country still does.