No doubt it’s that success, and RFE/RL’s sponsorship of what Mr. Fly believes is the largest network of independent journalists in Russia, that has prompted an unprecedented and intensifying assault by the Putin regime. Late last year, Russian authorities imposed a new requirement on the congressionally funded broadcaster: a 24-word disclaimer at the top of every news report, blog post or even tweet saying the content comes from “a foreign agent.” On video, the disclaimer would consume the first 15 seconds of every clip; compliance would drive away the audience.
The U.S. broadcaster consequently has refused to go along, and as a result has piled up some $2.4 million in fines imposed by Russian courts. Last week, bailiffs appeared at RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau, saying they were there to begin enforcement of payment; the same day, the agency’s Russian bank account was frozen. Since the funds in the account are not sufficient to cover the fines, the next steps could include the seizure of the bureau’s assets, blockage of its Internet sites or prosecution of its personnel, most of whom are Russian.
RFE/RL has appealed the fines, in vain; last week, it took its case to the European Court of Human Rights. It has offered to negotiate a more workable disclaimer with Russian media authorities. But the regime has refused to compromise. On the contrary, it recently imposed the disclosure requirements on two other Internet-based news organizations, Meduza and VTimes, which are staffed by Russian journalists.
That makes RFE/RL a test case of whether independent journalism can survive in Russia. The organization, which is based in Prague, has operated inside the country for nearly 30 years, since being invited to open a Moscow bureau by Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Putin’s crackdown threatens to restore the status quo of the Soviet era, when no free media were tolerated.
If that’s what occurs, the Biden administration must respond reciprocally. So far, it has focused on reversing the punitive measures; Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised them this week in his first face-to-face meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. But if RFE/RL is forced to close its Moscow bureau or other Russian operations, Russian state outlets that operate in the United States, including RT and Sputnik, should not continue to have unimpeded access to U.S. airwaves.