Putin the TV Puppet Master (Image: Zina Saunders)
The Duma on first reading has voted to approve amendments to the administrative code that would impose fines on anyone preparing or distributing foreign news on the territory of Russia if they do so without permission from the Russian authorities.
If passed, the amended provision of the administrative code would impose fines on individuals of up to 3,000 rubles (50 US dollars) and on companies or offices of up to 30,000 rubles (500 US dollars) for each violation.
The Russian authorities could certainly make use of these fines to set the stage for the closure of offices of foreign media and especially foreign broadcasters, by setting up a superficially legal arrangement they could employ rather than the more informal pressures they apply now.
Such actions by Moscow, of course, could ultimately cut off Russians from news and information that did not follow the Kremlin line; but even before that, it could have a deleterious effect on the stories that foreign media and foreign broadcasters prepare and broadcast inside Russia. The impact on broadcasters like Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and VOA is likely to be especially severe.
During the Cold War, these and other stations like them broadcast to Soviet audiences via shortwave. The transmission sites were abroad and thus beyond the reach of the Kremlin. But with the end of communism and the USSR and changing media consumption habits, most of these Western broadcasters shifted from shortwave to FM radio band.
On the one hand, that change has made it far easier for audiences to listen to them as anyone with experience of short-wave knows. But on the other, it has meant that in most cases, these outlets had to locate their transmission sites inside the countries to which their broadcasts were directed, something that has given some post-Soviet governments a whip hand over them.
Because these regimes can deny broadcast facilities, those who want to reach the population sometimes hold their fire lest they be closed down and not able to reach their intended audience at all. That has had two unfortunate consequences, both of which will be exacerbated by the new Russian measure.
On the one hand, it sometimes means these stations do not criticize the authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere as they deserve, thereby subverting their own raison d’etre and allowing the regime to point to such broadcasts, when they echo the official line, as evidence that the regimes are telling the truth and that foreigners are on their side, not the people’s.
And on the other, it has meant that when Western journalists learn of such practices, they blame the Western journalists on the ground for supposedly selling out rather than recognizing that the latter are only doing what they often feel compelled to do in order to be able to keep broadcasting.
A current example of this involves Radio Liberty’s Tajik Service which has been criticized for being too cozy with Dushanbe and whose leadership has now been changed (eurasianet.org and facebook.com/asem.tokayeva/).
No journalist should be put in the position of having to make such compromises, but many have been – and not just by authoritarian post-communist regimes. When the decision was made in Washington and elsewhere to shift from short-wave to FM and broadcast sites from outside target countries to inside them, such Hobson’s choices became inevitable.
Given the increasingly authoritarian nature of Russia and many of the other post-Soviet countries, the sources of this problem need to be recognized and addressed. Going back to short-wave broadcasts is probably not a good option given changes in audience tastes. But allowing these regimes to manipulate Western journalists cannot be tolerated.
Western governments must denounce all such efforts by these regimes to control broadcasting whether informal as in Tajikistan or more legally formalized as in Russia, something they have been less that enthusiastic about doing in the past. And they must come up with a different strategy in the future.
Closing down these outlets or allowing host governments to do that or to modify what is on them is not acceptable. Both the needs of the populations involved and Western values and interests dictate that. One possible strategy would be to broadcast via satellite direct-to-home television.
That would be expensive and the transition would not be easy for many audiences. But the messages such stations carry are too important to let anyone distort them or force those who deliver them off the air.
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