When Joe Biden meets with Vladimir Putin tomorrow, huge numbers of news outlets will cover the story. One, however, stands to be part of the story.
Russia’s effort to expel Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (which is funded by, though editorially independent of, the United States government) from the country has received widespread attention. As the two presidents prepare to converge on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, the news service’s leaders are expecting—hoping—that Biden will take a stand on the threats facing it and other independent media in Russia in a way that his predecessor, Donald Trump, did not.
It’s an undesirable position for any news organization to be in, though not one that RFE/RL is unfamiliar with. The outlet spent much of last year defending itself from the Trump administration’s concerted effort to wrest control of America’s international news broadcasters. Around the same time, the Kremlin began ramping up its own long-standing war with the service, mandating that it label all of its online content as being the product of a “foreign agent” and imposing hefty fines for its failure to comply, increasing the literal cost of the service remaining in Russia so much that it would have to consider withdrawing.
For Biden, RFE/RL’s predicament is both a remnant of the Trump era and a test for his own presidency. How he approaches this issue, and whether his administration makes good on its pledge to respond if Russia doesn’t relent, will reveal the extent to which Biden’s foreign policy centers human rights. His approach will also test whether what Atlantic contributor Tom Wright has described as the Biden doctrine can go beyond simple rhetoric. Most pressing, at least for RFE/RL, it could determine whether the news service’s 30th year of operating in Russia will be its last.
RFE/RL’s existence in Russia has never been particularly easy—especially since Putin came to power. Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who invited the broadcaster to set up shop in Moscow following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin has little time for an uncontrolled press. Within days of his inauguration in 2000, Putin began consolidating state and privately owned media under his control. Some outlets were seized or shut down; others were simply squeezed out of existence.
RFE/RL faced different, more gradual pressures. In 2002, Putin revoked Yeltsin’s decree inviting the outlet to establish a bureau. Then, in 2012, the service lost its broadcast license, was kicked off the airwaves as a result, and had to shift its programming primarily onto the internet. Five years later, the Russian government added the outlet to its “foreign agent” registry—a designation that is ubiquitously understood in Russia as denoting spies and traitors, and one that requires those given the label to submit to extensive audits, lest they be fined.
But the most damaging measure came last fall, when the Kremlin announced a new rule mandating that all foreign-agent designees attach a 24-word text or 15-second video disclaimer at the beginning of each news article and social-media post indicating that the content was created by an organization “performing the functions of a foreign agent.” Compliance would have meant granting the Russian government undue control over how RFE/RL chooses to display its journalism—a level of influence the broadcaster wouldn’t accept from the U.S. government, let alone anyone else. What’s more, “our audience numbers would collapse overnight,” Jamie Fly, the president of RFE/RL, told me from the broadcaster’s headquarters in Prague. “It’s not the job of any government to tell us what audience to try to reach with our content.”
Viewership isn’t the only concern for RFE/RL. It also has to consider the impact that such a designation would have on the hundreds of freelancers who contribute to the news service, three of whom have already been individually targeted with a foreign-agent designation. “It’s really intended to scare journalists away from working for foreign news organizations,” Fly said.
The cost of noncompliance is significant: To date, RFE/RL has racked up more than 500 criminal charges and fines totaling upwards of $3.4 million. Its bank accounts have been frozen, and its newsroom has been visited by bailiffs looking to collect on payments. The situation has become so dire that it has begun to take precautionary steps to ensure a continuity of programming if its Moscow bureau is forced to close, including relocating some of its staff to Kyiv and Prague. Further contingency plans are being made in the event that its website is blocked.
Though President Trump may no longer be in office, what is happening to RFE/RL today is a big part of his legacy. It was Trump, after all, who failed to adequately respond when the broadcaster and its federally funded sister network, Voice of America, first received their foreign-agent designation—a move that Moscow framed as a direct retaliation to the U.S. imposing the same on Russia’s state-run outlets, RT and Sputnik (which have not been compelled to label their content or inhibited from reaching American audiences).
When presented with the opportunity to support the country’s international broadcasters, the Trump administration made their problems worse by firing the organizations’ senior leadership and undermining the editorial firewall protecting their independence. Michael Pack, Trump’s appointee to lead the agency charged with overseeing them, echoed the Kremlin line that being a journalist is “a great cover for a spy.” The way several RFE/RL journalists saw it, Trump created an opportunity that Moscow was able to take advantage of.
The situation was a “perfect storm,” Andrey Shary, the director of RFE/RL’s Russian service, told me. “And of course the Kremlin used it. They are not fools … They monitor what is going on in the U.S.”
Biden has reversed many of Trump’s damaging moves, and his administration has repeatedly pledged its support for the broadcaster, but it’s still unclear just how much time and political capital the president is willing to expend on this issue, especially if his aim is to improve America’s relationship with Moscow. When I asked the State Department, a spokesperson told me that “should the Russian government continue to move to forcibly shut down RFE/RL, we will respond,” without elaborating further.
One possible response, put forward by The Washington Post’s editorial board, is for the U.S. to retaliate in kind. If Moscow won’t permit RFE/RL to operate in Russia, then the U.S. shouldn’t allow RT or Sputnik unimpeded access to its airwaves, either. Such an approach, however, would not only raise fundamental questions about press-freedom standards in the U.S.; it would also likely result in further escalation. Such was the case last year when the Trump administration, apparently reacting to the Chinese government’s expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters, halved the number of journalists permitted to work for Beijing’s state-run outfits in the United States. In return, Beijing expelled more than a dozen journalists from three U.S. newspapers.
Another option is for Washington to simply invest more into RFE/RL so that it can address its changing circumstances and continue covering the kinds of stories that Russian state media won’t touch, such as those about the coronavirus pandemic, corruption, the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, and the prodemocracy movement in neighboring Belarus. “We are committed, no matter what, to finding new ways to engage with our audiences,” Fly said, noting that RFE/RL has relied on data-driven journalism and user-generated content in countries where it has lost physical access. Though such tools can be time-consuming and bring with them further challenges in terms of verification, Fly added, “if we need to adapt our programming because we lose access to certain types of coverage, we will do that.”
Just as autocrats the world over might have taken inspiration from the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s recent ploy to arrest a dissident journalist, Putin’s efforts to dismantle what’s left of Russia’s free press will undoubtedly offer like-minded leaders a new form of repression. Indeed, one outlet has already folded as a result of being branded a foreign agent: VTimes, a business-news site, which had been one of the last remaining independent outlets in the country. Meduza, a general-news outlet, is complying with the labeling requirements (albeit in its own way), though it has warned that even these efforts might not be enough to sustain it.
“If the Biden administration and others don’t take a stand against the use of foreign-agent laws as a tool to target media, I think we could see a wave of these sorts of measures across many different countries,” Fly said. “That’s just another reason to push the Russians on this issue and prevent it from having the worst consequences, which appears to be where we’re headed right now.”