Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty must not submit to Putin’s blackmail

by Ted Lipien in The Washington Examiner

January 27, 2021

Until recently, I briefly served as president of the taxpayer-funded media outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. I was on the job for only 36 days, but I was busy.

I strongly resisted pressure to submit to a blackmail plan by the Kremlin designed to force the outlet to acknowledge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea, a sovereign part of the territory of Ukraine that is now under Russian occupation.

During my short tenure, I insisted that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty must never lie or censor its programs to please the Kremlin, even if it means covering Russian news from outside Russia and relying on the help of citizen journalists and volunteers based within Russia. Others think that keeping a large bureau in Moscow as a legal entity registered under Russian law and registering reporters in Russia as foreign agents, as Russian law requires, is a better option. I strongly disagree.

Before I took the job in December, I discovered that some people inside and outside the U.S. government were advocating in favor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty complying with the new punitive Russian legislation targeting the outlet. They argued that the outlet should agree to label its special Crimea Ukrainian news website as a foreign agent website to meet all new Russian legal demands. The same individuals were also willing to label the outlet’s Crimean news content as content for Russia, not Ukraine. They were saying this reluctantly but saw no other choice.

The rationale for such labeling was that it would allow Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and its reporters to continue working legally in Russia. Russian journalists covering Russia and Ukrainian and Tatar journalists covering Crimea would have to register as foreign agents or face fines that could amount to millions of dollars. Noncompliance would eventually lead to criminal prosecution.

I strongly opposed submission to Putin’s blackmail. I believe that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty should never agree to participate even unwillingly in an open lie and censorship. One argument advanced in favor of the labeling of program content was that the outlet could say what the Kremlin wanted it to say and add that it disagreed with Putin’s new law. I found such reasoning unacceptable because it would still represent a fundamental breach of media freedom and a violation of everything that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has stood for during its noble history of support for the truth and free press. As a refugee from communism, I myself spent 33 years working as a journalist and an executive for U.S. international broadcasting, much of that time in charge of highly successful Voice of America programs that helped to bring democracy to Poland and provided uncensored news during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Even before my brief tenure at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I concluded that the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which gives grant money from Congress, has allowed itself to be railroaded into a legal trap by the Kremlin. The federal agency and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have already spent enormous sums of taxpayers’ money on complying with new Russian laws ultimately designed to force the outlet to humiliate itself, to lose its credibility, and to acknowledge Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Unless the new Biden administration can convince the Kremlin to change its repressive media law, highly unlikely considering the recent arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, journalists in Russia face a perilous future.

I was trying to be proactive in protecting Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian reporters and their ability to report safely on Russia without censorship and blackmail, but the new acting USAGM CEO Kelu Chao chose to remove me a few days ago after I told her about these and other concerns. I found it strange that in December, she profusely congratulated me on my appointment. Moreover, in a phone conversation just a few hours before her assistant’s middle-of-the-night email announcing my termination, she said that she agreed with me on Russia and everything else I was doing. I spent my last hours on my job trying to arrange a new diplomatic initiative to win a humanitarian release from prison in Belarus for media consultant Ihar Losik, who was on a hunger strike and has a wife and a young child waiting for him at home.

I can only wonder what Chao really thought about what I told her and what might have caused her to change her mind. She gave me no opportunity to resign. She expressed no dissatisfaction with my service. I may not be a neutral observer regarding her decision, but considering the acute crisis in Russia, I thought it was not a prudent or a particularly decent way for the new USAGM leadership to treat a colleague who devoted almost his entire professional life to U.S. international broadcasting and to strengthening media freedom and democracy around the globe. I was not even offered a chance to debrief new agency leaders.

Last December, I reluctantly agreed to take the job to protect the organization I greatly value and admire from inappropriate outside influence and bad mistakes. I am quite happy to be back at home with my family. I can now only urge my successors at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Biden administration not to submit to Putin’s blackmail.

The U.S. government rightly does not recognize the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea, and neither should U.S. taxpayer-funded media organizations. Submission to Putin’s blackmail would destroy Radio Liberty’s proud historical legacy and threaten its credibility and its future.

Ted Lipien is a former acting associate director of the Voice of America, former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a journalist, and a media freedom advocate.

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