U.S. officials and press freedom activists say that Moscow’s demand that independent news outlets like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty identify as foreign agents is a bureaucratic attempt to stifle coverage that Russian citizens depend on to follow anticorruption protests and the treatment of Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader.
“The term ‘foreign agent’ brings back memories from the times of Joseph Stalin, when there were witch hunts of so-called foreign agents or spies,” Gulnoza Said, an activist with the Committee to Protect Journalists, which promotes press freedom, said in an interview. “A lot of people may stop watching videos or reading content that has that label.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which started early in the Cold War nearly 70 years ago, was initially funded by the C.I.A. to counter the spread of communism. Today, it receives nearly $125 million in funding from the U.S. Agency for Global Media, an independent federal agency, and operates in 27 languages in 23 countries, with over 600 full-time journalists and 1,300 freelance reporters on payroll, agency statistics show.
In 1991, President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia invited the outlet to open a bureau in Moscow. Today, the Russian service has a $22 million budget and employs 58 full-time reporters and 250 freelance journalists. It also operates a Russian-language TV channel, Current Time, in partnership with Voice of America.
Despite the U.S. funding, Radio Free Europe says it is editorially independent by virtue of an American law amended in 1994 that prevents U.S. officials from tampering with its news operations.
However, the Trump administration rescinded that rule in October, raising concerns that political appointees could more easily interfere in editorial decisions. In 2019, State Department officials, news media observers and a panel of academics raised concerns that the outlet’s network in Tajikistan took a pro-government stance in its reporting.
Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, said that even though Radio Free Europe had editorial firewall provisions in place, there was no denying that “they are state media.” She could not say if Russia’s foreign agent law was an appropriate way to achieve transparency, but said readers there should know the outlet’s funding source.