WASHINGTON -- RFE/RL President Jamie Fly told a U.S. Senate committee on June 9 that Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka has discussed copying Russia’s “foreign agents” law to further restrict media freedom in Belarus.
Fly, who testified remotely before the Foreign Relations Committee, outlined how the Russian law has affected RFE/RL’s operations in Moscow, saying the tactic of imposing such laws to restrict the free flow of information is spreading as authoritarian leaders are “learning from each other” and adapting such approaches in different forms and at different speeds.
“My concern is that we see this trend in Russia, we see it in Belarus at differing rates, of criminalization of journalism,” Fly said.
These are attempts by authoritarians “to control the information space, limit the options for their citizens to state propaganda outlets or outlets that the regime is comfortable allowing because they are noncontroversial.”
Russia’s “foreign agents” law requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the Russian government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” to submit to audits, and to label their content.
Among the foreign-funded media that Moscow has targeted is RFE/RL, imposing on it millions of dollars in fines for noncompliance. The company has challenged the law in the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that Moscow is violating its international obligations.
Fly told the committee that Russia’s most recent moves against RFE/RL include freezing of its bank accounts in Russia.
In Belarus, he said, RFE/RL journalists are performing "incredibly dangerous work" as they attempt to cover demonstrations and the political situation in general. He noted that one RFE/RL journalist was arrested just outside his apartment after leaving to take care of personal business, while others have faced risks on a regular basis just for doing their jobs.
“It’s almost impossible to do on-the-street journalism because of the laws the regime has put in place,” Fly said.
Fly said statements of support from Congress are helpful to push back against these efforts and ensure there are repercussions when journalists are targeted.
He told the committee that even if RFE/RL loses its bureau in Moscow and if its journalists are not able to operate inside Belarus, RFE/RL will “adapt its programming and redouble our efforts” to reach audiences in those countries.
But he added that changing tactics often requires technology, saying new funding “will go a long way” to reach audiences that need RFE/RL now “more than ever in these increasingly difficult environments in both Russia and Belarus.”