May 21, 2021 - World

Radio Free Europe fights to continue operations in Russia

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (left) meets Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Photo: Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP via Getty

Among the topics that Secretary of State Tony Blinken raised with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in their first meeting on Wednesday was the crackdown on the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Why it matters: RFE/RL, which is editorially independent, has the largest audience in Russia of any international media organization across its several platforms, according to the U.S. Agency for Global Media. But its continued operations in Russia are in doubt.

To comply with restrictions imposed last fall, RFE/RL would have had to place warnings on every piece of content it produces — 15-second trailers before videos, for example — identifying itself as a foreign agent.

  • That's a more onerous version of the labeling required in the U.S. for Russia's RT and Sputnik propaganda outlets.

Believing it would not be able to effectively reach its audience under those conditions, "we decided to defy the law and to not label, which is how we ended up in this situation today," RFE/RL president Jamie Fly tells Axios.

  • "We now have roughly $2.3 million in fines assessed against us for content that was not labeled, and last Friday we had bailiffs visiting our bureau and our bank accounts being frozen several hours later," Fly says.
  • RFE/RL has appealed in the Russian courts and at the European Court of Human Rights, but "we understand that we may be in a situation where we are not able to convince the Russian authorities to change course," Fly says.
  • Under the law, Russian authorities could raid the Moscow bureau and seize equipment, or even could pursue criminal charges against RFE/RL's corporate officers.

The bottom line: If enforced, the law "would diminish the firsthand reporting that's possible from inside Russia, which is disturbing not only to us ... but comes at a time when there are many other Russian independent media outlets under attack," Fly says.

  • He added that even if the Moscow bureau is forced to shut down, RFE/RL will use its large network of contributors to continue to produce journalism in Russia.
Go deeper