U.S.-taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE-RL) in Moscow have provided a voice of freedom to Russian listeners for years. When the station first opened its mics to Russian opposition leaders, many supposed they would be silenced sooner or later by a government not usually tolerant of independent media. Instead, trouble came from a surprising quarter: Washington, or the RFE-RL headquarters in Prague, where American officials decided to fire practically all the journalists of Radio Liberty’s (Radio Svoboda) Moscow bureau and cancel their human rights programs.
I first came to Svoboda’s offices in 2010 as an 18-year-old journalism intern. RFE-RL trains young people with a passion for free expression not found anywhere else in Russia. At the RFE-RL Moscow bureau, I was taught not to be afraid to publish something the Kremlin would not like. At any of the infamous Russian-state-owned media outlets, I would have been trained to ignore my conscience.
My first radio report was about a small protest against Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Mass anti-fraud protests were not on the horizon yet — in July 2010, just 10 people attended the demonstration. RFE-RL paid attention even to such a small group because Radio Liberty journalists thought minorities should have the right to speak out and have their voices heard. This was one of the reasons why I came back as a summer intern in 2011 and again this year.
Just last month, soon after my last monthlong internship, everything suddenly changed without warning. Early in the morning on Sept. 20, journalists of the online editorial team received a text message summoning them to a different office, where they were told they were no longer RFE-RL employees.
“What is going to happen to the website?” the journalists asked. “This is no longer any of your business,” they were told.
The next day, the same thing happened to the radio journalists. They were not even allowed to say goodbye to their longtime listeners.
Those who were not fired decided to quit in protest to show solidarity with their colleagues. Just imagine nearly all NPR or Fox News on-air personalities suddenly disappearing without a word. The difference is that in Russia, journalists not willing to follow the Kremlin line will not easily find another job in their chosen profession.
The American management of RFE-RL explained the strange and unexpected action, citing a need to restructure the Russian Service. Medium-wave (AM) broadcasting in Moscow was to end because of a new Russian law. Radio broadcasts would continue on shortwave, but mainly online. Video content on the website was going to be increased dramatically, RFE-RL executives announced.
This does not explain why both radio and online journalists were fired and human rights reporters dismissed. Some former staffers and young reporters with whom I had worked as an intern were already highly experienced in streaming online video from protest actions and political trials. Surely, there would be need for such human rights and political coverage by the “new” Radio Liberty. Perhaps audience research has shown that programs must appeal only to the large segment of pro-Putin Russians. Such programs already are abundant on state TV. How wise is it to offer people more of the same instead of trying to expose them to alternative ideas?
While AM broadcasting may no longer be the most popular media in the United States overall, millions still listen to AM talk radio. In Russia, where less than 60 percent of people use the Internet, AM and even shortwave radio are still vital because TV is under government control. Independent talk radio is incredibly important for us in Russia. RFE-RL’s sudden firing of its Moscow staff will mean people can’t even stream radio online — those who have access to the Internet, that is.
One of my friends recently told me a story about his relatives who live in a Russian village near Moscow, 49 miles away from the closest zone with Internet connections. Radio Liberty was their only source of alternative news to the state-owned television network, which is basically a daily diary of President Putin. It is much easier for them to listen to AM radio than shortwave broadcasts. Now that Radio Liberty will end AM broadcasts on Nov. 10, they have no idea where to get non-government-controlled information.
These Russian radio listeners hope the American administration will use whatever leverage it may still have to find a compromise with the Russian government to allow Radio Liberty to have AM, FM and cable coverage in Russia, just as Voice of Russia radio and Russia Today TV have in the United States. Sadly, there is no indication that Washington is interested in this issue. The decision of RFE-RL management to “restructure” Radio Liberty probably was one of the best gifts Mr. Putin could have wished for on his 60th birthday.
Kirill Filimonov is a student of media and communications at Russia’s Higher School of Economics.