US Secretary of State expresses concern over Russian attempts to restrict RFE/RL

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed his support for U.S. international media amid concerns over Russian efforts to shut down and muzzle RFE/RL under its controversial “foreign agent” law.

Blinken met on April 6 with the acting head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Kelu Chao, “to discuss the vital role that free and independent media play in the preservation and promotion of democratic principles worldwide,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor has hit RFE/RL’s Russian-language services with fines of nearly $1 million in recent months for around 400 violations related to failure to comply with burdensome restrictions of the “foreign agent” law.

Blinken tweeted afterward that the two “discussed our shared concern over Russia’s efforts to close Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and silence this valued source of independent reporting.” He called the meeting “insightful.”

Chao said she was encouraged by Blinken’s concern about Russia’s excessive labeling requirements and exorbitant fines targeting RFE/RL.

“The secretary agreed that the Russian government’s efforts to silence independent journalism only harm the citizens it is meant to serve,” she said, according to a USAGM statement.

USAGM networks include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the Voice of America (VOA), the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB).

“The editorially independent reporting of these networks is particularly important in countries with repressive media environments, including where independent journalism is censored or freedom of expression is restricted or punished,” Price said.

Blinken expressed his strong support for all of USAGM’s global networks during the meeting, the USAGM statement said.

First passed in 2012 and expanded several times since, the “foreign agent” law gives authorities the power to brand nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups, and news media deemed to receive foreign funding for political activity as “foreign agents.”

In 2017, Russian regulators put RFE/RL’s Russian Service on the list, along with RFE/RL’s regional Russian-language news services and Current Time, the network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America. The law also puts RFE/RL journalists at risk for criminal prosecution.

Among other things, the law requires news organizations that receive foreign funding to label content within Russia as being produced by a “foreign agent.” The announcement must be twice as large as the font size used for the headline of the article. For video materials, the text must occupy at least 20 percent of the screen and be shown for at least 15 seconds.

Russian regulators have singled out RFE/RL, whose editorial independence is also enshrined in U.S. law, over other foreign news operations in Russia.

An independent nonprofit corporation that receives funding from the U.S. Congress, RFE/RL has not complied with the “foreign agent” law.

“Given that USAGM’s legislatively mandated firewall prohibits its networks from accepting editorial direction from the U.S. government, RFE/RL and VOA refuse to label their content in such a wholly inaccurate manner,” the USAGM statement said.

The mounting fines could potentially force the company to shutter its presence within Russia.

The only other news organizations to be hit with the “foreign agent” designation and ordered to label their content, but not yet fined, are VOA and a small Czech outlet called Medium-Orient — neither of which currently have a physical presence in the country.

Press watchdogs have said the effort appears aimed at closing down all of RFE/RL’s operations in Russia, which currently reach nearly 6.7 million people a week.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has said Russia should repeal the foreign agent law and “ensure that the country’s regulator is not used to censure journalists and harass and threaten media organizations.”

Amnesty International has said Russia’s foreign agent law “further erodes freedom of expression and association” in that country.

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