WASHINGTON – Media freedom is under severe pressure throughout RFE/RL’s 23-country coverage region, as demonstrated by actions against RFE/RL journalists and its operations -- particularly in Russia where RFE/RL’S 30 year presence in the country is facing an existential threat.
Said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly, “In Russia, Belarus, Afghanistan, and so many other parts of our region, RFE/RL journalists and their colleagues from other outlets are increasingly under attack. World Press Freedom Day offers an opportunity to give thanks to the brave men and women who through their reporting expose injustice, hold leaders accountable, and keep their fellow citizens informed.”
On November 12, 2020, respected RFE/RL Helmand correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee paid the ultimate price for his commitment to journalism, losing his life in a targeted car bombing that also injured his younger brother, a former reporter for Deutsche Welle. While RFE/RL journalists in Afghanistan have long endured death threats and other forms of harassment from Taliban and Islamic State forces, the threats they face have intensified as efforts speed up to conclude peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently accused the Taliban of engaging in “a pattern of threats, intimidation, and violence” against media workers in Afghanistan.
On April 21, RFE/RL social media consultant Ihar Losik marked his 300th day in pre-trial detention in Belarus. Detained on June 25, 2020, following a search of his apartment in the Belarusian city of Baranavichy, Losik has been accused by authorities of using his popular blog on Telegram to “prepare to disrupt public order” ahead of the controversial August 9 presidential election in Belarus that incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka claims to have won in a landslide amid allegations of widespread fraud. Since then, authorities have added unknown additional charges against Losik – who has started two hunger strikes to protest his detention.
In addition to Losik, numerous other RFE/RL journalists on assignment to report on the election and its aftermath have been harassed, detained, jailed, and stripped of their accreditations. On October 2, 2020 the Belarusian Foreign Ministry canceled the accreditations of all journalists working for foreign media organizations in the country. To date, no Belarusian nationals working for Western media outlets have been accredited under the new procedures.
And in Russia, where nine of RFE/RL’s Russian-language reporting projects have been designated as “foreign agents” since 2017, draconian new labeling rules adopted in October 2020 have led Russian regulators to file 520 separate violations against the company, which will result in at least $2.3 million in fines. Coming on top of already-burdensome “foreign agent” reporting requirements, the mandated 24-word labels must be appended to every piece of content (text, audio, video, social) distributed by designated “foreign agent” media – a list that the Russian Justice Ministry expanded last week to include the Latvia-based independent media Meduza. While RFE/RL is appealing all of the violations and fines, and has filed suit against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the unprecedented legal assault on its Russia operations may force it to leave the country.
The Russian government is also harassing freelancers associated with designated RFE/RL “foreign agent” projects, such as Crimea.Realities freelancer Vladislav Yesypenko. On April 30, his wife, Kateryna posted a searing testimony demanding her husband’s immediate release; that same day, Yesypenko’s pre-trial detention was extended to at least July 11. Yesypenko was arrested in March 2021 by Russia’s FSB security service while in Russia-annexed Crimea. During an April 6 hearing, Yesypenko told a court he was tortured into "confessing” to spying on behalf of Ukraine.
Three other RFE/RL freelancers, who were named individual “foreign agents” by the Russian Justice Ministry in December 2020 have lost their appeals against the designation, meaning they must file extensive financial reports with the Russian government, label all of their electronic communications as coming from a “foreign agent,” and be identified as a “foreign agent” in any content they publish or in which their work is cited.