Now, however, the USAGM faces a grave threat from another source: the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin. Perhaps calculating that the turmoil in the agency had made it vulnerable, Mr. Putin has targeted the RFE/RL news operation in Russia and the television outlet Current Time, a joint operation with the VOA. Russian regulators have assessed heavy and mounting fines on U.S. media and are threatening criminal prosecutions of their personnel because of their failure to comply with onerous new requirements for labeling their journalism as the product of “foreign agents.”
Mr. Putin’s clear intent is to force the shutdown of the U.S. media operations in Russia — something that would deal a crippling blow to what remains of independent journalism in the country at a critical moment. As the Kremlin has undoubtedly noticed, the 50-person RFE/RL bureau in Moscow and the several hundred freelancers who work with it across the country have played a big role in providing uncensored coverage in Russian of recent anti-government demonstrations. In neighboring Belarus, also shaken by mass protests against its Russia-backed regime, Current Time’s coverage attracted 320 million views in just six weeks last fall.
The Kremlin’s way of squeezing the broadcasters is to require that every news report, video broadcast or social media post be preceded by a lengthy label, including the statement that it was “created by a foreign mass media outlet carrying out the functions of a foreign agent.” The requirements don’t apply to other Western media, such as German or French government broadcasters; U.S. operations have been singled out. Complying with the mandate is technically impossible, editors tell us; for example, the label is longer than the maximum character count for a Twitter post.
The U.S. broadcasters have responded by ignoring the requirement, which in turn has led to the levying of fines for what have become hundreds of violations. By March, RFE/RL officials say, the penalties could amount to tens of millions of dollars. Staffers deemed responsible could face criminal charges, with a potential sentence of two years in prison. In the absence of a respite, the organization will probably have to shut down its Russian operations even as the opposition movement led by Alexei Navalny gains momentum ahead of parliamentary elections later this year. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin’s formula for shutting down RFE/RL could be adopted by other autocratic regimes, from Belarus to Kazakhstan.
The Biden administration has pledged to push back against Mr. Putin’s aggressions, unlike the curiously passive Mr. Trump. In this case, one option would be to threaten the reciprocal closure of Russian government broadcasters in the United States, such as Sputnik and RT. At a minimum, the State Department should pursue sanctions under the Magnitsky Act against Russian officials involved in the campaign against U.S media.