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Radio Free Europe says it was ‘forced’ to shutter Russia operations amid Putin crackdown on media

A view of the newsroom of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Moscow in April 2021. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)
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Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the network that broadcast uncensored news across the Iron Curtain in Cold War-era Europe, said Saturday it will shutter its operations in Russia, citing mounting fines over its refusal to be identified as a “foreign agent” and a new law stifling freedom of the press.

“This is not a decision that RFE/RL has taken of its own accord, but one that has been forced upon us by the Putin regime’s assault on the truth,” Jamie Fly, the network’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. “Following years of threats, intimidation and harassment of our journalists, the Kremlin, desperate to prevent Russian citizens from knowing the truth about its illegal war in Ukraine, is now branding honest journalists as traitors to the Russian state.”

Russia’s independent media, long under siege, teeters under new Putin crackdown

RFE said that on Friday, the tax authorities in Russia started bankruptcy proceedings against its operations there, stemming from more than $13.4 million in fines for 1,040 violations of Russia’s “unlawful demand” that RFE’s content be labeled as produced by a “foreign agent.”

RFE added that 18 of its journalists also had been designated “foreign agents.” Nine of its Russian-language websites were blocked in the past week, it said, over its refusal to delete information about the invasion of Ukraine.

A law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday that threatened 15 years in prison for, as RFE said, “any journalist who deviates from the Kremlin’s talking points on the Ukraine war” played a role in its decision to shut down its Russian operations. The law bans the use of the term “invasion” to describe Russia’s violent attack on Ukraine, instead encouraging the phrase “special military operation,” as Putin has described the war.

Amid the concerns over shrinking press freedoms — which were already among the worst in the world, with Russia ranking 150th out of 180 nations on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders — other Russian and Western news organizations have shut down or curtailed their operations in the country in recent days. Some Russian journalists are fleeing the country.

RFE said it would continue reporting on Russia and its war, but from outside the country. On Saturday, it posted tips for Russians to access its blocked content, pointing them to virtual private networks, or VPNs, which allow people to make it appear as if they’re logging on from a different country. It also referred Russians to its Telegram channel and Tor, an anonymous browser.

RFE, which provides news programming online and through radio and television broadcasts, started as a radio network founded at the beginning of the Cold War “to transmit uncensored news and information to audiences behind the Iron Curtain.” It is a nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, alongside networks such as Voice of America, though it remains editorially independent from the government.

RFE’s website says it “played a significant role in the collapse of communism and the rise of democracies in post-communist Europe.”