Putin Wins: Obama Shutting Down U.S. Pro-Democracy Radio Broadcasts in Russia

It won’t be long before America’s voice for democracy will be silenced in Russia after the Obama administration fired most of the staff at the offices of Radio Liberty.

In an effort to silence that U.S. voice for democracy, Putin’s Russia passed a new law on November 10 that makes it illegal to have radio stations that are more than 48 percent foreign-owned. The law ended Radio Liberty’s license to broadcast on the AM band in Russia. The original license was issued by Boris Yelstin in the days when Russia was promising to become a new beacon of democracy and freedom after generations of communist oppression in the former Soviet bloc.

After the law was enacted, on September 20 and 21, U.S. officials fired some 41 staffers, journalists, and broadcasters, gruffly escorted them under armed guard to a lawyer’s office, demanded that they sign a statement ending their own jobs and were then escorted off the premises.

These mass firings came as a great shock to everyone. No advanced notice of shutting down America’s voice in Russia was related ahead of time but this abrupt shut down leaves a bad impression about America’s dedication to liberty.

“The timing of it, the way it was done, and the lack of explanation” sends an unfortunate message, said David Kramer, president of the human rights organization Freedom House. “It creates the impression, whether intended or not, that the U.S. is pulling out [of Russia], and that’s not the impression we want to leave.”

Responding to this new Russian law, other broadcasters have shifted their broadcasting to places in the Baltics or made new arrangements with legal Russia broadcast outlets, but the U.S. decided to begin a move to end its decades-long broadcasts.

Radio Liberty (RL), a division of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe (RFE), has been on the air urging Russians to consider democratic reforms and serving as one of the few sources for real, factual news in Russia for 60 years.

The knee-jerk reaction of the Obama administration to the new Russian law is thought to send all the wrong messages in a Russia with a resurgent police state.

A former RFE executive told The Washington Free Beacon, “It’s really a blow against the American radio presence and American media presence at a time when Putin is already doing all he can to undermine Western influence.”

“This is capitulating to Putin, and Putin is very sophisticated and knows how to work the Americans. The reaction [by the Obama administration] has been too limp,” the former executive said.

Journalist Mumin Shakirov, who has worked for Radio Liberty for 18 years, was shocked and saddened by the abrupt shutting down of the liberty-minded radio broadcasts.

Now all that is in the past. The Moscow bureau no longer exists. But we have carried out our mission; for all these years we have talked about another Russia, about events that often passed the official media by, and we have occupied a human rights niche that would otherwise have been empty. We were different from everyone else and will be remembered for it.

Others mourn the likely end of Radio Liberty, as well.

“I remember the Soviet Union as a child, and how my parents huddled over our radio listening to Radio Liberty, hanging onto the words,” recalled Anna Borshchevskaya, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center. “It was a symbol of hope, a connection to the West, a source of information they could trust.”

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees RFE-RL, claims that this is all just an effort to refocus the American message in Europe. The BBG announced that new efforts will be Internet-based instead of radio-based.

Steven Korn, president and CEO of the BBG, disputes the claim that the U.S. is abandoning Eastern Europe. “Some of our critics claim quite incorrectly that we are withdrawing or retrenching in Russia. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are adapting to change conditions with a new strategy and focus.”

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