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Putin takes aim at a news company funded by Congress: How will US respond?

BY THOMAS KENT, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR

For three decades, a congressionally funded company has streamed news to Russian citizens from inside Russia, free of Kremlin control. Vladimir Putin may now force it to close its doors in Moscow.

The prospect of Russian action against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty poses a sudden challenge to the Biden administration and the new Congress. They will have to decide what resources to devote to defending the broadcaster, while also pursuing a much larger agenda seeking Moscow’s cooperation on arms control, regional conflicts and a host of other issues.

With some 50 reporters and editors in Moscow and 250 stringers across the country, RFE/RL has built a powerful Russian-language news service under the noses of Kremlin authorities. Its staff — almost all Russians — streamed web video coverage nationwide of the mass demonstrations against the arrest of Alexei Navalny. The company is active on the web and social networks, reporting on environmental controversies, corruption and social issues. Its continued existence helps protect and promote other independent media that are struggling to grow in Russia.

Boris Yeltsin allowed RFE/RL to open a Moscow bureau in 1991, after it had spent decades broadcasting to Russia from the outside.

But since Putin took power in 2000, his government has steadily chipped away at RFE/RL’s ability to operate. Authorities have harassed RFE/RL’s staff, closed its radio relays in Russian cities and made it impossible for its TV programs to appear on Russian cable. Over the past three years the government has tightened the screws further with a web of “foreign agent mass media” laws that have been applied almost exclusively against RFE/RL.

With exquisite timing, Putin’s administration has now used these laws to pose a dilemma for the United States in the first weeks of the Biden administration. On Jan. 27 — one day after Biden and Putin had their first phone call — a Moscow court began levying a series of escalating fines against the company for failing to comply with “labeling” requirements that, RFE/RL fears, could destroy its credibility and scare off its Russian audience.

Under the requirements, every story on RFE/RL’s websites must carry a disclosure — in large type — that the content was produced by a “foreign agent.” Videos must carry a similar warning, running for 15 seconds. Similar markings are also required on social network posts. The steady increase in restrictions on RFE/RL suggests that even if it complies with these regulations, more onerous ones will follow.

Fines for non-compliance with the labeling requirements totaled $150,000 as of Feb. 10 and could reach $1 million by next month, according to RFE/RL officials. RFE/RL is appealing the fines, arguing the regulations violate press freedom and are technically impossible to comply with. Assuming the appeals fail, the company will be faced with fines it cannot pay, and individual RFE/RL staff could find themselves criminally liable. Authorities have already started declaring some RFE/RL contributors to be “foreign agents,” a dangerous brand for a person to bear in Russia.

RFE/RL is based in Prague and provides news to 23 countries. But its Moscow bureau is key to its services for Russian citizens. The company could return to serving Russians from abroad, but nothing compares to a reporting base inside Russia.

Biden’s Russia team and members of Congress active in foreign affairs presumably have been drawing up a list of inducements and threats that might affect the Kremlin’s behavior in different fields. If they see RFE/RL as a priority, they could dip into those options. On Jan. 22, five Democrats and Republicans on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs threatened new sanctions against Russia to defend the broadcaster.

The U.S. could also retaliate against Russia’s exposed media flank inside the United States. The Kremlin-financed RT television network runs on cable across the country, and Sputnik radio broadcasts in Washington and Kansas City. Russia claims its foreign agent media laws are simply a “mirror response” to the Justice Department’s requirement that those two outlets register as Russian agents. But the Russian broadcasters carry few if any formal disclosures that they are Russian-run — and have been largely left to operate unmolested.

The great unknown is whether Russia really needs RT and Sputnik, now that it has developed so many other overt and covert ways to influence American opinion. If the U.S. takes action against those outlets, they are certain to posture as paragons of free media, persecuted for political reasons. RFE/RL’s problems, Russia will say, stem from a simple failure to obey some routine regulations — ignoring the impact of those regulations and the Kremlin’s persistent efforts to choke RFE/RL.

The fate of RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau has dimensions going far beyond Russia. It will say much about what Congress and the administration will do to defend all of America’s international broadcasting networks, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Radio-TV Martí. They all frequently operate in hostile environments. The safety of their offices and contributors depends on their foes believing that the U.S. has their backs.

Although Congress funds RFE/RL through a government entity, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, RFE/RL is organized as a private company. It is largely autonomous and has an independent editorial policy. Yet even though it is not a government agency, few observers would see a shutdown of RFE/RL in Russia as anything other than an early Russian success over the new administration and Congress.

As a senator, Biden was a strong advocate for RFE/RL. Actions by him and democracy advocates on Capitol Hill will show where it ranks in their priorities now.

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