While the protests over a disputed presidential election in Belarus in recent weeks have been front-page news, in the weeks before it was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s turn to be the focus of thousands marching in the streets. Many Russians are fed up with the Kremlin’s handling of the economy and the pandemic, stolen elections, the attempted murder of opposition figure Alexi Navalny and with Russian life in general.
Putin’s popularity has sunk to new lows. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin’s reaction has been to double-down on controlling what the Russian public reads and hears.
Since Putin assumed power two decades ago, a core task of congressionally-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) has been to overcome that information barrier and provide Russians with accurate and reliable news reporting on what is happening inside their country. Not surprisingly, as trust in Putin’s rule has waned, the desire for truthful, independent news coverage has grown.
The Radios' survey data across its programming makes that quite clear. For example, in the most recent survey in May 2018, RFE/RL weekly audiences in Russia had nearly doubled over the previous survey in 2015, growing to 6.5 percent of Russian adults. And in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, as distrust of state-directed news increased, RFE/RL’s web traffic has ticked up substantially, with many of the platforms and websites seeing an increase in traffic of 50 - 75 percent. “Current Time” – a joint venture with Voice of America – has become even more popular, seeing weekly use increase by over 100 percent, principally through streaming programming on the web and viewing content on social media.
Predictably, it has not been easy to operate inside Russia. In 2002, the RFE/RL’s Russian service had 33 affiliate partners that ran its programming. To drive that programming off the air, the Kremlin used tax collectors, health inspectors and anti-corruption investigations to hassle affiliates until they ended their ties with RFE/RL.
But with the success of its web-based programming, Putin has moved to squeeze RFE/RL further. Already designated as a foreign agent for receiving money from a foreign source under an existing Russian law, RFE/RL and its journalists are now being told that they must declare their status as foreign agents at the start of every published or broadcast report in large, bold type — twice the size used for an article’s headline and, for video, run for a minimum of 15 seconds at the beginning. The obvious goal is to curtail the audience. Putin takes an already skittish public and makes sure anyone would think twice about reposting news accounts and videos — or even visiting the site to begin with.
The Kremlin would no doubt argue that the Russian government’s tagging of RFE/RL journalists as foreign agents is consistent with what the U.S. government did in 2017 when the Justice Department told RT, the Russian-sponsored television network operating in the U.S, and Sputnik, its sister online news service, to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). FARA requires any individual or entity acting “at the order, request, or under direction or control, of a foreign principal” to register with Justice and regularly report on its foreign resourcing and the information it is distributing.
Of course, the equivalency here is anything but. RFE/RL is indeed a grantee of the federal government. It is also a 501c3, that is, a non-governmental, non-profit. It has a firewall and journalistic independence from U.S. government meddling — all long essential to the media group’s credibility in Russia and other foreign markets. Not that any of this matters under Russian law. And note, the United States government does not require RT (originally, Russia Today) to label its content as a product of a foreign agent. Whether living in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, Jane or Dick Smith may well tune into an RT newscast or talk show and never know its editorial content is “made in Moscow.”
The American approach rests on the view that we should not be afraid of hearing the opinions of others, even if originating from a competitor, adversary or agent of a foreign power. In the marketplace of ideas, distinct and differing viewpoints help shape a more thoughtful public debate — or so we say.
But if that is true at home, it is no less true abroad. The principle of “free speech” assumes a public space for both supporters and opponents of a government to make their cases — and, in turn, the ability to access news and reporting that can factually inform their positions. By not pushing back against the Kremlin’s efforts to strangle independent media, the U.S. is not taking one of its own fundamental principles seriously enough.
The correct position would be for the United States government to demand an equal playing field. RT gets to operate here if U.S.-funded enterprises are permitted equal access and opportunity in Russia. Short of that, we’re playing a suckers’ game, with the information dice loaded in the Kremlin’s favor.
Jeffrey Gedmin was president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from 2007-2011. Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar in strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.