On January 27, a Russian court fined Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and its Russian-language services for failing to comply with the country’s “foreign agent” law—with rulings on four more protocols expected in February and RFE/RL journalists facing possible criminal charges—raising the possibility that the news organization could be forced to cease operations in Russia.

GMF Senior Fellow Jamie Fly, who previously served as president and CEO of RFE/RL, answers questions about these developments, their implications for the Russian media ecosystem, and the important role a free press plays in democracy.

What is the purpose of RFE/RL’s news operations in Russia and in Europe more broadly?

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reaches audiences in 23 countries across Eurasia in 27 languages. Its mission is to provide independent news and information in societies where it does not otherwise exist. Given the prevalence of state-controlled propaganda in Russia, RFE/RL’s Russian audience benefits from the independence and no-holds-barred coverage of politics and issues central to the Russian people by outlets like RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Radio Svoboda, and its 24×7 Russian-language channel Current Time. Despite efforts by the Kremlin to limit the Russian people’s access to RFE/RL’s content, RFE/RL has achieved a growing Russian audience online who are drawn to its coverage of breaking news and live events, as well as its journalism about issues that have been neglected by other Russian media outlets.

RFE/RL is a private, non-governmental not-for-profit entity funded by U.S. Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media. How is it different from outlets like RT and China Daily, which are funded by and generally viewed as the propaganda arms of the Russian and Chinese governments, respectively? 

RFE/RL’s editorial independence is enshrined in law. The organization is funded by the U.S. Congress, which has prioritized the ability of RFE/RL’s journalists to adhere to the highest journalistic standards. Central to RFE/RL’s mission, going back to the Cold War, is its obligation to tell its audiences the truth. In contrast, Russian and Chinese state-funded and state-controlled outlets often focus on undermining the information space. They spread lies, conspiracy theories, and misinformation with the goal of obfuscating the facts and undermining truth. Independent journalism is one of the best tools to respond to this deterioration of the information space, and RFE/RL journalists play an important role in this regard for their audiences.

Last week a Russian court fined RFE/RL for failing to comply with new restrictions under the country’s “foreign agent” law. How does the Russian government’s requirement that RFE/RL label all its content as being produced by a “foreign agent” affect its ability to report in the region?

The Kremlin’s growing pressure on RFE/RL could have significant consequences for its operations in Russia. RFE/RL has journalists on the ground in Moscow and other parts of Russia reporting on topics that get little coverage by Kremlin-controlled news outlets. These journalists are now being targeted by the Kremlin and designated as “foreign agents.” The Kremlin is trying to place limitations on how RFE/RL content is labeled in Russia and, ultimately, attempting to make it difficult for RFE/RL’s growing audience to access that content. This all comes despite the fact that Russian-government controlled media reach audiences across the United States and have not been forced to operate under similar conditions. Ultimately, if RFE/RL is not able to do its work inside Russia, the Russian people could lose access to a trusted source of news and information during tumultuous times.

We’ve seen media freedom declining around the world over the past decade. What is the implication of this trend for democracy? What can be done to reverse it?

Independent media outlets are central to the health and success of democracy. Much of the decline in media freedom is due to market forces and the move of audiences online, but in many countries, these developments are being exploited by authoritarian regimes. Authoritarians like Russia, China, and Iran are trying to undermine the very notion of truth through information operations that spread conspiracy theories and disinformation. The United States should work with its allies to strengthen independent media, both through increased support for publicly-funded networks like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or other democratically-funded broadcasters, but also by assisting small local outlets that help hold governments accountable and provide objective news and information to audiences who otherwise lack it.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.