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Amid Russia’s press crackdown and invasion of Ukraine, U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe sees audience surge

UPDATED: Fri., April 1, 2022

A Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces member holds an NLAW anti-tank weapon March 9 in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine.  (Efrem Lukatsky)
A Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces member holds an NLAW anti-tank weapon March 9 in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine. (Efrem Lukatsky)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. government founded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in the early years of the Cold War to broadcast news across the Iron Curtain. As the Kremlin has cracked down on the press within Russia during its invasion of Ukraine, the organization – which merged in 1976 – has seen its audience surge, and may be more relevant than it has been in decades.

But while Congress recently approved more funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as it has been known since the merger, proponents say lawmakers and the Biden administration need to make the outlet – and the rest of the U.S. Agency for Global Media – a higher priority to combat Russian disinformation during the crisis in Ukraine.

“This is a war of ideas as much as it is a kinetic war,” said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador who sits on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s advisory board. “The Russians are going all-in on it, and we’ve got to be there, too.”

After Russian troops began their assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s audience boomed in Russia, as the government of President Vladimir Putin banned independent reporting on the war.

Over roughly the first three weeks of the war, views of the outlet’s videos on YouTube from within Russia more than tripled, while the number of online readers in Russia grew by more than 50%, according to data from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The outlet’s Ukrainian service websites doubled its number of visits in February compared to the month before.

“Once the war got underway, a lot of our audience growth was just related to the fact that we are there on the ground,” said Jamie Fly, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “We’re providing uncensored coverage, which especially for the Russian audience is not something they can get through state channels.”

Since the war in Ukraine began, members of Congress have praised the nonprofit organization’s journalists – who report in 27 languages in 23 countries where freedom of the press is under threat – but the Senate has yet to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The agency includes Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and other news outlets that receive federal funds but remain editorially independent from the government.

Biden has tapped former Voice of America director Amanda Bennett to lead the agency, but the president didn’t make her nomination official until January, a year after he took office. Matt Armstrong, who served on the agency’s board until 2017, called that delay “appalling.”

“It tells me the low priority of this news and information element,” he said. “There is, I think, a misunderstanding of what (the U.S. Agency for Global Media) is and at the same time a lack of understanding of the value it provides, and I think the failure to appoint a proper CEO shows how unimportant this was.”

In a statement, the White House called Bennett “an eminently qualified nominee” and said, “We hope that the Senate confirms her to this vital role as quickly as possible.”

Bennett’s nomination sits with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is the top Republican. A spokesman for the panel’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, suggested Risch is holding up Bennett’s confirmation process.

“There is no secret at this point that Senate Republicans are slow walking critical national security nominees,” spokesman Juan Pachón said, “even if those nominees are for positions to help lead U.S. efforts in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Risch’s spokeswoman, Suzanne Wrasse, said Bennett had just completed her nomination paperwork and the committee staff would be meeting with her soon, after which the panel could schedule a hearing and vote on her nomination. Wrasse rejected the idea her team is deliberately slowing down the nomination process, pointing out that Biden has yet to name nominees for other important foreign policy roles.

“It’s been 14 months of the Biden presidency and we still haven’t received a nominee for Ambassador to Ukraine,” Wrasse said. “What do Democrats mean that Republicans are holding up people that haven’t even been nominated for key positions?”

Armstrong, who served on the agency’s board from 2013 to 2017, said the fact Biden has yet to appoint a Voice of America director or nominate an under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs – another key role – suggests the “informational element” of foreign policy is not a priority for his administration.

Risch, in a statement, said he looks forward to reviewing Bennett’s nomination “in the coming weeks.”

“As Putin continues his crackdown on free press and freedom of expression inside Russia, it’s critical that we continue to support the brave journalists who are shining a light on the war crimes being committed in Ukraine and around the globe,” he said. “As such, it’s important we have a leader at the U.S. Agency for Global Media to oversee U.S. efforts to inform people around the globe in support of freedom and democracy.”

Fly, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s director, said the war in Ukraine and Russia’s press crackdown have shown the organization’s value during times of crisis.

“In a wartime environment, facts are often scarce,” Fly said. “Obviously, there’s significant disinformation that the Russians have used to advance their narrative. The Ukrainian government as well is advancing its narrative very effectively in the information space, and so journalists who are willing to be truly independent and to report what is going on are incredibly important.”

While he declined to give details, citing safety concerns, Fly said Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty still has “a significant network of journalists inside Russia” despite a new law that makes reporting what the Kremlin calls “fake news” – including calling what’s happening in Ukraine a “war” or “invasion” – punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

“Their work is more important than ever,” Fly said, “as a lot of other news organizations are no longer able to operate there and the needs of the Russian audience are extreme now, just because all these avenues of outside information and many Western social media platforms are being blocked.”

Armstrong said the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s value goes beyond providing uncensored news in countries with repressive regimes. It also helps foster a professional press in nations that lack media infrastructure, supporting local reporters who understand their own countries better than foreign journalists.

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were initially set up by the CIA, but the intelligence agency’s involvement ended in 1971. Since then, the organization has continued to receive funding from Congress, but the government does not control their news coverage.

At the end of 2016, Congress passed legislation that took authority away from the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s board in favor of a single CEO. Armstrong resigned soon after that, he said, because he feared the move could make the agency more susceptible to political interference from the White House and Congress.

That is exactly what happened when President Donald Trump came into office, nominating conservative filmmaker Michael Pack to serve as the agency’s first Senate-confirmed CEO. After his nomination was held up amid bipartisan objections, Pack’s brief tenure in 2020 was marked by his controversial ouster of Fly and other top officials. Bennett resigned her post as Voice of America’s director.

When Biden took office, he reappointed Fly to lead Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and restored Crocker to his advisory role after he and other board members were removed by Pack. Crocker and two other board members sued Pack, who stepped down when Biden took office.

Crocker, a Spokane Valley native who served as ambassador to six countries, said while the journalists employed by the U.S. Agency for Global Media are doing “fabulous reporting” under the leadership of acting CEO Kelu Chao, it is “imperative” that the Senate confirm Bennett to give the agency strong leadership at a critical time, as the United States and its allies face Russia’s disinformation campaign.

“There’s kind of an imbalance here,” Crocker said. “Going all-in on a military level and just leaving aside the importance of information and that information war. The Russians get it, and I hope our Congress gets it, too.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated how Amanda Bennett left her role as director of Voice of America in June 2020. She resigned after Michael Pack was confirmed by the Senate as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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