The Crackdown on Radio Free Europe

Aleksandr Kolesnichenko, a reporter for the Russian newspaper Novye Izvestiya, writing on Transitions Online:

Last year, investigators in the Siberian city of Tomsk accused Viktor Zima of having made “large-scale” profits through illegal business activity and regulatory violations. The charge carried up to five years in prison.

His offense? Investigators said TV-1, a broadcaster of which Zima is director general, had received 6 million rubles ($205,000) for transmitting Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty programming from 2004 to 2007. TV-1’s license allegedly did not authorize the company to transmit the U.S.-funded RFE/RL. The broadcaster was stripped of its frequency in May.

Zima said he would not try to get it back and would instead quit the broadcasting business. “I’m not interested in broadcasting popular songs, but they won’t let me do serious things,” he said.

“Investigators said that radio stations are authorized to broadcast only their own productions,” Zima said. “Other stations also don’t broadcast music and shows created in-house. But they aren’t targeted.”

Zima’s TV-1 is one of dozens of broadcasters that have fallen afoul of authorities in Russia and Central Asia recently and that happen to air RFE/RL programming. Three years ago, the broadcaster’s offerings could be found on 30 stations in Russia. The number of regional partners is down to two, according to Maria Klein, director of the RFE/RL Russian Service. The crackdown has been focused on regions outside Moscow.

In Kyrgyzstan, authorities have taken the programming off the air, and in late December the Azeri government ordered all foreign broadcasters, including RFE/RL, off the air.

“The Soviet authorities used to jam Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. Now, they actually revert to jamming, but using different, quite legal tools. They are creating a certain information climate in the provinces, while all independent information has been channeled to the Internet,” said Aleksei Simonov, president of Russia’s Glasnost Defense Foundation, a free press advocacy group.

The Russian Service’s website says its programs are available in Moscow and in Murmansk, Rostov (via cable), Tomsk, Udmurtia, Buryatia, and Perm regions. Klein declined to comment on the local broadcasters’ relations with Russian authorities.

Yelena Glushkova, chief correspondent of the RFE/RL Russian Service’s Moscow bureau, said local radio stations are dropping the station’s programs under pressure from the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications and Mass Communications, or Rossvyazkomnadzor.

In fall 2005, Rossvyazkomnadzor ordered all RFE/RL partners to “bring broadcasting activity into line with license terms.” Most partners’ licenses did not allow them to transmit RFE/RL programs.

“Although the order was legitimate, there were only two ways to comply,” Glushkova said. The stations could take programs off the air or they could ask Rossvyazkomnadzor to change their licenses, which are valid for five years. “Most of our partners tried to introduce changes into their licenses. A few went so far as to file the necessary papers. All those who applied for changes had their requests turned down,” Glushkova said.

Born in the Cold War era, RFE/RL’s official mission “is to promote democratic values and institutions by disseminating factual information and ideas.” It broadcasts in 20 countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The service is funded by the U.S. Congress and governed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which also oversees the Voice of America.

James K. Glassman, chairman of the governing board, said in May that the number of Russian private broadcasters transmitting RFE/RL and Voice of America programs fell from 90 to fewer than 20 in the last three years. Russian media cited his report on the U.S. stations’ broadcasts in Russia, quoting him as attributing the trend to state control over the media in Russia and pressure from the Russian authorities, which view the U.S. stations as propaganda tools.

But Boris Boyarskov, the director of Rossvyazkomnadzor until his 10 December firing, dismissed suggestions that the regulatory moves were politically inspired.

“We don’t have any questions about Radio Liberty in Moscow. However, when people undertake the obligation to work themselves but later transfer the allocated frequency to a network, this is a serious violation of one’s commitments. If people take a frequency to broadcast programs created in-house, develop regional journalism, they must fulfill the obligation. Or else, a new competition should be announced for the frequency, and all those willing to participate, including Radio Liberty, should prove that their show is better and obtain official permission for transmission,” he said.

Reporters Without Borders, an international media freedom organization, ranked Russia 141st among 173 countries in press freedom in 2008. Russia has fallen 20 spots in the Press Freedom Index since 2002, ranking between Mexico and Ethiopia.

Valeriya Novodvorskaya, a liberal politician and a former Soviet dissident, said the authorities want to pull the plug on RFE/RL. “They just can’t simply expel Radio Liberty from Russia. From the very start, they tried to deny it an FM slot in Moscow, and now they’re taking away frequencies in the provinces.”

Following a failed coup by Communist Party hardliners, then-President Boris Yeltsin issued a special edict in August 1991 to allow Radio Liberty to broadcast in Russia. The Russian Service obtained official registration from the Russian authorities in 1995 and in 1998 received a medium wave frequency, typically for AM broadcasting, for Moscow. In 2005, the Russian Service was given a VHF frequency, typically used for FM. Apart from Russian, the station broadcasts in the Tatar, Cherkess, and Chechen languages.

Little data is available on the RFE/RL audience in Russia. In Moscow, a daily average of 155,300 people or 1.6 percent of residents over 12 listened to the station from August to October, according to a survey by media researcher TNS Russia. Margarita Lyange, a spokeswoman for Radio Rossii, a state-controlled station, said foreign broadcasters’ audiences decreased in the mid-1990s. “They lost competition to Russian broadcasters,” she said.

RFE/RL’s audience in Moscow rose by 21 percent from spring 2006 to fall 2008, but Ruslan Tagiyev, TNS Russia director general, said the audience is very small. The station ranks 39th in Moscow, trailing far behind private stations like Ekho Moskvy and City FM and state-controlled ones like Radio Rossii and Mayak.

RFE/RL Russian Service also operates a website featuring its broadcasts, news, and transcripts of its programs. The site registers between 8,000 and 10,000 hits a day, according to the rumbler.ru traffic counter.

Political analyst, researcher and Kremlin critic Dmitry Oreshkin said RFE/RL’s influence on public opinion is negligible. He said officials put pressure on the station for fear that it may cast them in a negative light. “There are political motives, but not at the top level. Officials don’t fear exposure to the people, but they fear exposure to their bosses,” he said.

Klein, of the Russian Service, declined to comment on the authorities’ attitude to the station. But she said the pressure even occasionally comes down to refusals to accredit RFE/RL journalists to certain events. Anna Kachkayeva, a media analyst and host of RFE/RL’s Guest Time talk show, said she has had problems arranging officials’ appearances. “But all the media have the same problems. Most liberal officials usually accept invitations,” Kachkayeva said. But she said that Vladimir Pligin, a member of the ruling United Russia Party and chairman of the Duma’s constitutional law committee, had appeared on her show, and central election commission chairman Vladimir Churov even gave her an award for election coverage.

Novodvorskaya, the former dissident, said the unimpeded operation of the Moscow bureau and closures of local partner stations are reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. “It was possible to distribute samizdat almost openly in the capital. If you got caught, they just seized the books and let you go. Whereas those reading The Gulag Archipelago in the provinces often ended up in prison,” she said.

For all the pressure in Russia, however, RFE/RL operates more easily there than many former Soviet republics. The transmission of RFE/RL programs is officially banned in Belarus, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Last autumn Kyrgyz authorities suspended the RFE/RL Kyrgyz service Azattyk citing disputes over payments to the state-owned broadcaster NTRK, and briefly suspended the BBC’s local service in December.

NTRK director Melis Eshimkanov said the broadcasters ran into debts because NTRK employees gave them incorrect bank details and the money did not reach the beneficiary.

Kubat Otorbayev, head of the Azattyk Bishkek bureau, said the station has been trying to arrange with private broadcasters to transmit its programs “but the audience coverage will be limited, especially in remote areas.”

2 responses to “The Crackdown on Radio Free Europe

  1. Not to worry. Online is where it is at. Radio is old school.

  2. Except that Putin is killing the Internet in roosha, and the Internet is very expensive in roosha, and many of the former sovok republics – so radio sure comes in handy.

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