US news company takes on the Kremlin in a battle of messages and technology
Vladimir Putin’s campaign to eliminate free media has forced a U.S. news company financed by Congress to suspend its operations inside Russia. Its challenge now is to leverage its news gathering and technology to keep serving its Russian audience.
For nearly seven decades, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has brought Russian citizens news and information free of Kremlin censorship. With Putin’s unrelenting pressure on Russia’s own news outlets, the American company — with more than 200 contributors across Russia — became perhaps the biggest independent source for Russians about events in their own country.
In recent weeks Putin has blocked the websites of RFE/RL’s main Russian service and of Current Time, its 24/7 television network. The network’s other sites with local news for specific parts of Russia also were blocked, along with its accounts on Russian social networks.
The immediate pretext was the company’s violation of Russian censorship about the Ukraine invasion. But Russian anger with RFE/RL had long been mounting over its focus on democracy and human rights, and its refusal to knuckle under to Kremlin demands. RFE/RL rebuffed a Russian order in February to delete articles about Alexei Navalny’s corruption investigations. It had also refused for more than a year to pay more than $13 million in fines for not complying with government demands that it brand every page of content with warnings that RFE/RL was a “foreign agent.”
RFE/RL was finally forced to suspend its operations inside Russia on March 6 after authorities threatened to seize its assets over the unpaid fines — and following passage of a new law that threatens 15 years imprisonment for any reporting that authorities consider “fake news.” Many other foreign news organizations, including the BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, have been forced to close or curtail their Russian operations, citing the danger to their employees.
RFE/RL has vowed to continue serving its Russian audience, which it estimates at 7 million, from its headquarters in Prague. The challenges are daunting:
- It must continue gathering news from inside Russia. Unlike Washington-based Voice of America, whose mandate is to cover news from the United States, RFE/RL’s mission is to report on internal events in Russia, as well as in the two dozen other countries it serves. Covering Russia from afar will require heavy monitoring of social networks, with the burden of verifying news and videos in an environment rife with false content. The company will also likely have to adopt techniques it used in Soviet times, such as interviewing travelers arriving from Russia and working through Russians’ relatives abroad. Additional funding expected from Congress will help the network put more correspondents around Russia’s periphery. The network is opening offices now in Latvia and Lithuania.
- RFE/RL is in a continuing arms race with Russia’s blocking technology. It has learned much from years of serving audiences in Iran and other nations that have tried to suppress its content. Anticipating the Russian action, the company had advertised for months how people could continue to access its news via VPNs, “dark web” browsers, mirror sites, and newsletters that can still get through by email. (RFE/RL no longer uses shortwave radio to Russia because few people still have the needed receivers.)
Despite all of Russia’s efforts, its information system is still porous.
Putin cannot seal the country off entirely from the rest of the world when so many Russians have relatives and other connections abroad. There is also a limit to which modern-day Russians, used to three decades of open communication with the world, will accept total Soviet-style isolation.
So far, according to RFE/RL figures, its audiences have actually increased as audience members use the techniques it has promoted. Civil society activists and family members overseas are making their own efforts to get real information into the country. Last week the hacking group Anonymous briefly managed to insert Current Time video from Ukraine into the streams of several Russian TV channels.
RFE/RL’s credibility lies in its tradition of accurate reporting, and in avoiding a propagandistic tone. The most important audience now is Russians who were initially taken in by state media justifications of the invasion, but now are starting to recognize the horror of what Russia’s unprovoked attack has unleashed. For these citizens, dispassionate, fact-based reporting will be the most effective tactic.
Beyond RFE/RL, other U.S. and allied efforts to reach Russian citizens are long overdue. These should include new outlets that function openly as official U.S. government channels. (RFE/RL and the Voice of America are organized as independent news companies with their own editorial policies; U.S. officials cannot take them over to broadcast specific messages.) Governments, foundations and individual donors should also increase their support for penetrating Russia with content by civil society groups and individuals, including well-known Russian public figures and journalists who have spoken out against the war.
America is not likely to determine Russia’s future solely by communication to its population — but Russia’s people must not think the United States cares so little about them that it is content to leave them exclusively in the hands of Putin’s propagandists.
Thomas Kent, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty until 2018, is a consultant on Russian information tactics. He is a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation and teaches at Columbia University. His book, “Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation,” was published by Jamestown in 2020.
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