Vladimir Putin’s attempt to stifle free expression has pushed a US journalistic organization backed by Congress to halt operations in Russia. Its current challenge is to continue servicing its Russian audience by using its news collecting and technologies.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has provided Russian residents with news and information free of Kremlin censorship for nearly seven decades. With Putin’s relentless pressure on Russia’s own news sources, the American firm — which has more than 200 contributors around the country — has become possibly the most reliable independent source for Russians on domestic developments.
Putin has recently restricted the websites of RFE/main RL’s Russian service and Current Time, the organization’s 24-hour television network. The network’s other sites featuring local news for specific regions of Russia, as well as its accounts on Russian social media, were also prohibited.
The company’s violation of Russian censorship on the Ukraine invasion was used as an urgent basis. However, Russian resentment of RFE/RL had been building for some time because of its concentration on democracy and human rights, as well as its refusal to bow to Kremlin demands. In February, RFE/RL defied a Russian order to remove information regarding Alexei Navalny’s corruption inquiry. It also refused to pay more than $13 million in fines for failing to comply with official demands that it label every page of content with warnings that RFE/RL was a “foreign agency” for more than a year.
Following the passage of a new law that threatens 15 years in prison for any reporting that authorities consider “fake news,” RFE/RL was forced to cease its operations within Russia on March 6 after authorities threatened to take its assets over unpaid fines. Many other foreign news organizations, like the BBC and Deutsche Welle in Germany, have been compelled to close or reduce their Russian operations due to the risk to their staff.
RFE/RL has pledged to continue serving its 7 million-strong Russian readership from its Prague headquarters. The obstacles are formidable:
- It must continue to obtain information from within Russia. Unlike Voice of America in Washington, which covers news from the United States, RFE/objective RL’s is to report on internal developments in Russia and the other two dozen nations it serves. Covering Russia from afar will include extensive social media monitoring, as well as the burden of validating news and videos in a climate filled with fake information. The organization will very certainly have to revert to Soviet-era methods, such as interrogating passengers arriving from Russia and working through Russian relations in other countries. More correspondents will be stationed across Russia’s periphery thanks to additional funds expected from Congress. The network is currently expanding into Latvia and Lithuania.
- RFE/RL is fighting Russia’s blocking technology in a never-ending weapons competition. Years of servicing viewers in Iran and other countries that try to censor its content have taught it a lot. Anticipating the Russian move, the corporation has promoted for months how readers could still get its content through VPNs, “dark web” browsers, mirror sites, and email-only newsletters. (RFE/RL no longer broadcasts to Russia on shortwave radio since few people have the necessary receivers.)
Despite its best efforts, Russia’s information system remains vulnerable.
When so many Russians have family and other links overseas, Putin cannot completely isolate the country from the rest of the world. There is a limit to how far modern-day Russians, who have grown accustomed to three decades of open communication with the rest of the world, will accept utter Soviet-style isolation.
According to RFE/RL statistics, audience members have been using the strategies it has encouraged, which has resulted in an increase in audience size. Civil society activists and family members on the other side of the world are working hard to bring accurate information into the country. Last week, the hacking collective Anonymous was able to inject Current Time content from Ukraine into the streams of multiple Russian television channels for a brief period of time.
The credibility of RFE/RL stems from its long history of reliable reporting and avoidance of a propagandistic tone. The most important audience now is Russians, who were initially duped by state media excuses for the invasion, but are now beginning to see the horror of Russia’s unprovoked aggression. The most successful strategy for these citizens will be objective, fact-based reporting.
Other US and ally attempts to contact Russian individuals, in addition to RFE/RL, are long overdue. New outlets that operate openly as official U.S. government channels should be included. (RFE/RL and Voice of America are independent news organizations with their own editorial practices; US officials are unable to seize control of them to broadcast certain messages.) Governments, foundations, and individual donors should enhance their funding for civil society organizations and individuals, especially well-known Russian public figures and journalists who have spoken out against the war, to penetrate Russia with content.
Although the United States is unlikely to determine Russia’s destiny purely through communication with its citizens, Russia’s citizens must not believe the US cares so little about them that it is prepared to put them entirely in the hands of Putin’s propagandists.
Thomas Kent, the former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty until 2018, is now a Russian information warfare expert. He teaches at Columbia University and is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. In 2020, Jamestown published his book, “Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation.”