RFE/RL Russian Service Director Andrey Shary published this blog post on May 27, on the svoboda.org website. We offer his post here in an English translation by Petr Serebrianyi of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.
On January 12, I was at the Moscow office of the state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor on Shkolnaya Street to see the reports on the lack of “foreign agent” label being filed. Yevgeny Zubarev, managing director of Federal News Agency [a Russian site considered by some to be a “troll factory”—eds.], found these violations on nine Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) websites and filed complaints. From January 12 to May 11, Roskomnadzor issued 520 violation reports; court circuit no. 423 and the Tverskoy district court were busy for four months imposing fines based on these reports. The total amount is about to reach $2.3 million, but it may keep growing ad infinitum if Yevgeny Zubarev or another volunteer make the effort. [On June 2, Roskomnadzor summoned RFE/RL to begin drafting a new set of 130 violation reports carrying potential fines of just under $1 million, starting on June 15—eds.]
It has gone far enough: Roskomnadzor is threatening to block RFE/RL websites; hundreds of our appeals have been denied, with little doubt that other appeals will be denied, too. RFE/RL has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, but when will it be considered? The due dates for the first batch of fines have expired, and we have seen RFE/RL Moscow bureau visited by court bailiffs twice, our bank accounts frozen, the state labor-monitoring agency Rostrud inquiring (allegedly concerned by the “publications in the media”) about possible delays in salary payments, and myself as director of the local representative company possibly facing one or two criminal charges.
In Roskomnadzor, two nice young women introduce themselves by full name including patronymic, which is usual for Russian bureaucracy. Yekaterina Sergeyevna, still in the beginning of her career of finding violations in the media, files the reports nimbly. She is in a hurry to finish by lunch: her friends sneak into the room now and then, a sniff of borsht being warmed up in a kitchenette microwave permeates the hallway. Asiya Yunirovna, Yekaterina Sergeyevna’s boss, is emphatically businesslike and yet friendly in her manners, she even addresses me as a “colleague.” I can hardly see anything common in our professions: I’m a journalist, Asiya Yunirovna is a political censor, but I prudently keep it to myself as the two women do their job dutifully, although without visible joy: just doing what they were told to, it’s not them I should argue with. I’m not sure if Asiya Yunirovna and Yekaterina Sergeyevna have heard about Hannah Arendt and her account of the “banality of evil,” but even if they have, they won’t apply it to themselves or they wouldn’t have applied for the job they have now. They have been told “foreign agent,” and they know what they should do.
As I bide my time on a low couch by the window, I realize that Russian judicial practice seems to be dominated by positivism. It means that a docile parliament passes the laws in the political interests of the national leader, but not according to the spirit of justice or legal norms. The most abhorrent example of such an abuse of law was the Nuremberg race laws of 1935 that created the basis for the “final solution” to the Jewish question. Millions of innocent people were shot or sent to gas chambers in accordance with the law hailed by the parliament.
There are no historical references like that in the appeals that RFE/RL lawyers filed in batches with the Tverskoy district court, the Moscow city court (then, supposedly, the Supreme court). The appeals explain in every detail why the Roskomnadzor’s requirement that we put on a clown cap and label ourselves “enemy of the people” (which is often a vernacular for “foreign agent”) is legally void and should be annulled. The appeals say that the Roskomnadzor’s requirement contradicts the Russian constitution, freedom to publish and consume information, and law on mass media; it infringes on the regulations for fair competition in media and creates negative bias towards RFE/RL. I can add a professional remark: this requirement is also an interference with journalistic work that hampers the distribution of our materials. Who is going to wait 15 seconds until the end of the “foreign agent” warning to see a video? Just look at the Twitter and Telegram accounts of Meduza and VTimes, our colleagues who have complied with the requirement. One can only pity them. [VTimes has now announced that it is shutting down because its business model was "destroyed" by its "foreign agent" designation - eds.]
Should one pity RFE/RL, too? Our Moscow bureau that opened soon after the failed coup in 1991 is on the verge of being arrested. It’s been three decades, and the history of Russian liberalism seems to have made a full circle. Our websites that have become twice as popular in the past two years are at the verge of being blocked (could that be one of the reasons of the crackdown?) Our journalists in Russia face the risk of making it into the list of “foreign agents,” with three of them already on it. Video production had to be partly relocated to Prague, into the RFE/RL headquarters, or Kyiv, where RFE/RL completed a technologically advanced bureau a couple of years ago.
Journalism is not a crime. It is a right and a duty to do your job: to honestly cover the events in your country and the world. As a prominent public official once told me, it’s a duty “to put the light on in a dark room.” But also, I’d add, it’s independence from the government of any kind: journalists shouldn’t have nationality. So, Yekaterina Sergeyevna and Asiya Yunirovna, Maria Vladimirovna [Zakharova, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman] and Dmitry Sergeyevich [Peskov, Presidential spokesman], we are not “foreign agents”: no U.S. or any other politicians are allowed to influence the editorial policies of RFE/RL, and there have been no exceptions I can think of for all my years at the Russian Service. There have been mistakes, poor texts, stupid things, bad luck in management or circumstances. There have been ups and downs, like in any other job. But the company has always been faithful to its mission. It’s the State Duma and Roskomnadzor, with the help of the Tverskoy district court and Yevgeny Zubarev, who are trying to forcefully interfere with our editorial matters.
Whether one should pity RFE/RL journalists is a misguided question. One should pity a desperate situation Russia has found itself in after a decade of Kremlin’s foreign policies. One should pity the lawlessness Russians have encountered, fearing police batons and fooled by Kremlin TV propaganda: they have no right of political choice, freedom of speech and assembly.
It may soon come to that there will be no one in a dark to put the light on. Whatever the losses, RFE/RL will survive and won’t leave Moscow however hard we are pushed away; we’ll find the way to our audiences no matter what. RFE/RL will still be there, because what we do is important and interesting for our readers, viewers, and listeners. So if you want to help us, just stay with us – despite all the obstacles and contrary to all the unjust requirements.