Activist company

America’s news organization faces off against the Kremlin in a battle over messages and technology

Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich PutinFormer National Security Advisor General Jones: Putin ‘Miscalculated’ on Invading Ukraine Defense and National Security — Biden Sends New Warning to China Energy and Environment — The Inside will continue its oil rental plans PLUSThe campaign to eliminate free media has forced a US congress-funded media company to suspend its operations in Russia. Its challenge now is to leverage its information gathering and technology to continue serving its Russian audience.

For nearly seven decades, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has brought Russian citizens news and information free from Kremlin censorship. With Putin’s relentless pressure on Russia’s own media, the American society – with more than 200 contributors across Russia – has become perhaps the biggest independent source for Russians on events in their own country.

In recent weeks, Putin has blocked the websites of Russia’s main RFE/RL service and Current Time, its 24/7 television network. The network’s other sites containing local information about specific regions of Russia were also blocked, as well as its Russian social media accounts.

The immediate pretext was the company’s violation of Russian censorship regarding the invasion of Ukraine. But Russia’s anger at RFE/RL has long been mounting over its emphasis on democracy and human rights, and its refusal to bow to Kremlin demands. RFE/RL pushed back in February on a Russian order to remove articles about Alexei Navalny’s corruption probes. He had also refused for more than a year to pay more than $13 million in fines for failing to comply with government requirements to mark every page of content with warnings that RFE/RL was an “agent foreigner”.

RFE/RL was finally forced to suspend its operations inside Russia on March 6 after authorities threatened to seize its assets over unpaid fines – and following the passage of a new law that threatens 15 years in prison for any report that the authorities consider to be “fake news”. Many other foreign news agencies, including the BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, have been forced to close or scale back their operations in Russia, citing the danger to their employees.

RFE/RL is committed to continuing to serve its Russian audience, which it estimates at 7 million, from its headquarters in Prague. The challenges are daunting:

  • He must continue to collect news from inside Russia. Unlike the Washington-based Voice of America, whose mandate is to cover US news, RFE/RL’s mission is to report on internal events in Russia, as well as the two dozen other countries which she serves. Covering Russia from afar will require intensive social media monitoring, with the burden of checking news and videos in an environment riddled with fake content. The company will also likely have to adopt techniques it used in Soviet times, such as interviewing travelers arriving from Russia and working with relatives of Russians abroad. Additional funding expected from Congress will help the network put more correspondents around Russia’s periphery. The network is now opening offices in Latvia and Lithuania.
  • RFE/RL is in an ongoing arms race with Russian blocking technology. He learned a lot from his years serving the public in Iran and other countries that tried to suppress his content. Anticipating the Russian action, the company had announced for months how people could continue to access its news through VPNs, “dark web” browsers, mirror sites and newsletters that can still be delivered by email. (RFE/RL no longer uses shortwave radio to Russia as not many people have the necessary receivers yet.)

Despite all of Russia’s efforts, its information system remains porous.

Putin cannot completely isolate the country from the rest of the world when so many Russians have relatives and other connections abroad. There is also a limit to which modern Russians, accustomed to three decades of open communication with the world, will accept total Soviet-style isolation.

So far, according to figures from RFE/RL, his ratings have actually grown as audience members use the techniques he promoted. Civil society activists and family members abroad are making their own efforts to bring real information into the country. Last week, hacking group Anonymous briefly managed to insert a current time video from Ukraine into the feeds 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 duped by state media justifications for the invasion, but who are now beginning to recognize the horror of what Russia’s unprovoked attack triggered. For these citizens, unbiased and factual reporting will be the most effective tactic.

Beyond RFE/RL, other US and allied efforts to reach Russian citizens are long overdue. These should include new outlets that operate openly as official US government channels. (RFE/RL and Voice of America are organized as independent news companies with their own editorial policies; U.S. officials cannot hire them to deliver 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 unlikely to determine Russia’s future solely by communicating with its people – but the Russian people must not think that the United States cares so little about them that it just leaves 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 news tactics. He is a Senior Fellow of the Jamestown Foundation and teaches at Columbia University. His book, « Fightback: Overt and Covert Options for Countering Russian Disinformationwas published by Jamestown in 2020.