BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Wednesday, Russia’s upper house of Parliament joined the lower house in expanding the definition of extremism in the law banning extremism. Many critics noted that the new amendments made it impossible to differentiate between actual extremism and ordinary controversy or criticism of the government.
For Russia’s dwindling independent media, the new legislation is a disaster. But, for Radio Liberty, the 56-year-old service funded by the American Congress, it’s a kind of opportunity. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Radio Liberty was just another voice in a pro-democracy chorus. Now, with President Vladimir Putin at the helm, it sometimes finds itself singing almost solo. JEFFREY TRIMBLE: We’ve certainly been told by people in Moscow that Putin has a personal antipathy toward Radio Liberty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeffrey Trimble advises the president of Radio Liberty. JEFFREY TRIMBLE: Now let me be clear. We try to be balanced in our programming. We don’t not carry the views of the Kremlin but we balance that by bringing to the microphone those who can’t be heard in the official Russian media because their views are very much at odds with those of the Kremlin. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last year, the Russian government issued 32 warnings to news outlets for, among other things, airing the views of such dissidents as former chess champion Garry Kasparov. JEFFREY TRIMBLE: He was interviewed on the Russian service of Radio Liberty. It remains to be seen as to whether the authorities will challenge us through some kind of reprimand or other action under the extremism law. We will however not back away from doing that kind of programming. We simply can’t and perform our mission. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is Radio Liberty’s mission? The U.S. government created Radio Free Europe to carry the message of American democracy to the Soviet Union’s satellite nations in their own languages.
Its sister service, Radio Liberty, now headquartered in Prague, did the same thing for Russia itself. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] When it began, the message was admittedly a little crude. ANNOUNCER: This is Radio Free Europe. Yes, the programs of Radio Free Europe are diversified, but every word, every piece of music is designed to interest and inform the enslaved peoples behind the Iron Curtain. [MORSE CODE BEEPS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Later, of course, the propagandists gave way to local reporters who openly embraced the American notion of the marketplace of ideas, and for a few years, that was no big deal. But now, all the major broadcast outlets are once again controlled by the Kremlin. [ANNA KACHKAYEVA SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN] INTERPRETER FOR ANNA KACHKAYEVA: Now an audience has come to Radio Liberty that is not traditional. It’s much younger. They don’t remember Radio Liberty as the voice of the western enemy. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anna Kachkayeva is a media analyst with Radio Liberty. INTERPRETER FOR ANNA KACHKAYEVA: They listen to and read our information because they are genuinely seeking a different point of view. Generally, they don’t tune into us except in times of national crisis. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is, when they can. In 1991, Boris Yeltsin granted Radio Liberty special status, giving free rein to its journalists and the freedom to broadcast on Russia’s regional stations with few strings attached. In 2002, that status was revoked. Although some officials denied it, others hinted that it was a response to Radio Liberty’s coverage of the war in Chechnya.
More recently, Yuri Bagrov reported for Radio Liberty from Chechnya. He reported on abductions, on the corruption of commanding officers, on closely held casualty figures. He was barred from public events. He was forbidden to travel. He was stripped of his passport. Now stateless, he lives in New York.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin tightens its grip on the media and Putin’s popularity holds strong and steady.
Did it bother you that the public doesn’t seem to care very much about free speech. [YURI BAGROV SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN] INTERPRETOR FOR YURI BAGROV: Yes, without question, it’s heartbreaking. It really bothers me that people don’t protest in the street. I can say that we can’t build a democracy on blood. I can say that we can’t build a democracy when we murder journalists. I can say it, but the people’s minds won’t change. DON JENSEN: One of the differences that’s troubling between now and say 20 years ago is that people, according to our data, seem very content with the news they’re getting from inside Russia. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Don Jensen is Radio Liberty’s director of research and analysis. DON JENSEN: And if people say they’re content and they say they like the style of the regime, it creates a very, very strong barrier for us, compared to 1988 say, when people weren’t happy with what they were getting from official Kremlin sources. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you there to convert people to democracy?
DON JENSEN: No, I – JEFFREY TRIMBLE: I’ll take a shot at that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeffrey Trimble. JEFFREY TRIMBLE: “Information is,” has been famously said, “the oxygen of democracy.” We give people information to make up their own minds about the kind of societies in which they want to live. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Russia will elect a new president in March, and the TV coverage of the candidates will be controlled by the Kremlin, just like last time. Meanwhile, Radio Liberty has lost more than half its national audience, due in large part to the strictly enforced requirement that broadcasters thoroughly document whatever they air, especially from foreign news sources.
This regulatory hurdle has become ever more onerous since Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky interviewed a Chechnyan terrorist in 2005. The number of stations airing Radio Liberty in the provinces dropped precipitously from more than 30 to 4. Even in Moscow and St. Petersburg it’s relegated to hard-to-find frequencies. ELENA GLUSHKOVA: Yes, it is difficult to be on the air now. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Elena Glushkova is the Moscow bureau chief of Radio Liberty. ELENA GLUSHKOVA: However, this is new era, era of digital radio, digital television, the era of Internet, and the more and more people in Russia have access to Internet, which is very promising thing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Radio Liberty’s Internet service has about 600,000 unique visitors a month, a number that’s growing fast. And so far the Kremlin doesn’t seem to care.
But Radio Liberty also faces a challenge from the White House, which proposes cutting the Russia service by 25 percent, while expanding the service to the Middle East.
So far, the Middle East services have had little impact there. They’re not trusted. They lack the credibility of the durable Moscow service, which has, or had, one of the largest news organizations in Russia, including a couple of hundred native born freelancers. Yuri Bagrov doesn’t for a moment think he was a propagandist, just a reporter who’s lost both job and country. [RUSSIAN] INTERPRETER FOR YURI BAGROV: Unfortunately, just when Russia is in need of real information, Radio Liberty is just barely surviving because of budget cuts. It’s the truth, and it’s really sad, because people want to work, and they know how to work, and the work isn’t there. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The evidence suggests that in the age of terrorism, hearts and minds campaigns, at least American ones, don’t work.
But in Russia, many of those hearts and minds are already won. A lot of them belong to young reporters like Yuri Bagrov, who have important stories to tell their fellow Russians, but no longer a place to tell them. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, a survey of Sunni media in Iraq shows the insurgency has many faces, and the AK-47 turns 60. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media from NPR.