The Cold War is over and the United States is allied with Russia and Central Asian nations in the campaign against terrorism. Yet, Moscow and at least one Central Asian nation, Kyrgyzstan, are sending hostile signals to the US-supported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Political analysts say the actions and comments made by Russian and Kyrgyz leaders are a reaction to unfavorable coverage of internal developments in the respective countries.
On October 4, Russia's President Vladimir Putin canceled an August 1991 decree issued by then-Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. The measure, issued in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup attempt by Soviet hardliners, guaranteed the legal and operational status of the Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), an international broadcasting service funded by the US Congress. Yeltsin's decree also instructed the Russian Federation's government to create conditions for Radio Liberty's journalistic work on Russia's territory "because of its role in the objective coverage of the march of the democratic processes."
Putin's edict doesn't provide an explanation for the revocation of the Yeltsin decree. A Foreign Ministry spokesman portrayed Putin's decree as having a purely technical character, indicating that the measure would not necessitate changes in the activities of Radio Liberty's Moscow bureau. A presidential aide, according to the RIA-Novosti news agency, said the Putin's aim was to restore "justice in Russia's information space." Radio Liberty "was actually in a privileged position compared to other foreign mass-media outlets working in Russia," the aide argued. Now Radio Liberty's operations will be governed by Russia's mass media law, which did not exist in 1991.
According to another presidential aide quoted by Interfax, Putin's decree sought to give equal status to all foreign media outlets in Russia, and should not be viewed as a consequence of Kremlin displeasure over the service's coverage of domestic Russian developments. At the same time, the aide mentioned that "despite the end of the Cold War," RFE/RL's coverage in recent years has become "biased."
Some more outspoken Moscow commentators confirmed that it is Radio Liberty's coverage of the brutal war in the separatist region of Chechnya that bothers the Russian leadership. "[Radio] Liberty, controlled by the narrow US interest groups, remains an extremely politicized organization," Sergei Markov -- the director of the Institute of Political Studies, a Moscow think-tank closely linked with the Putin administration -- told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily. Those interest groups, Markov says, "probably love democracy but even more strongly they hate Russia." That's why, he concludes, "[Radio] Liberty has actually turned into a mouthpiece of Chechen terrorism."
Radio Liberty has also run afoul of President Askar Akayev's administration in Kyrgyzstan. Since the beginning of 2002, Kyrgyzstan has been the scene of an intensifying domestic political conflict. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Having taken action to restrict internal independent media coverage, Radio Liberty's coverage of domestic developments clearly vexes Akayev. In late July, Akayev lashed out at Radio Liberty, describing the service as a "threat to the state," the AKIpress web site reported.
"This is information terror unleashed by Radio Liberty that is being financed from abroad, against the Kyrgyz state," Akayev added. Subsequent to Akayev's comments, opposition political leaders have claimed that Radio Liberty's signal has become more difficult to receive in Kyrgyzstan.
In Russia, ever since Yeltsin decree, and especially after the beginning of the first Chechen war in 1994, Russian Communists and other anti-liberal and anti-Western political forces have demanded that RFE/RL's activities in Russia be stopped. Soon after the Russian troops rolled into Chechnya again in the fall of 1999, the Kremlin launched a propaganda campaign against RFE/RL because of the service's candid coverage of the war's brutalities.
The Putin administration has never concealed its irritation at RFE/RL style of journalism. In an interview with the Gazeta daily in early 2002, Putin aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii bluntly stated that "[Radio] Liberty's coverage of the events in Chechnya in 1999-2000 was, in our opinion, one-sided, biased and far from neutral: the radio station was supporting the separatists' activities."
The latest Russian pressure campaign against RFE/RL this year is apparently connected with the Congressional mandate to begin broadcasts in three North Caucasus languages, including Chechen. Russia's Information Minister Mikhail Lesin called the decision a "very serious policy mistake."
A number of Russia's human rights activists and media analysts directly link Putin's decree to the RFE/RL's plans for North Caucasus broadcasting services. "I think it is a symbolic move. In particular, it is connected with the beginning of their broadcasts in Chechen," Aleksei Simonov, the head of the Protection of Glasnost Foundation, writes in a commentary posted by the Grani.ru website. "They were warned that there would be certain counter-measures in this regard. Maybe these are those counter-measures."
Other commentators put the Kremlin's action into a broader context of the Russian authorities' information policies. Igor Yakovenko, the secretary-general of the Russian Union of Journalists, believes that the revocation of the Yeltsin decree is a reflection of a disturbing trend during the Putin era, in which the government is curtailing media freedom. "Authorities are slowly eliminating those [media outlets] that pursue an editorial policy other than the one that is supported by the Kremlin," says Yakovenko.
Just two days before Putin's RFE/RL decree was published, Yastrzhembskii, speaking at a media seminar in Yekaterinburg, argued that some positive changes had occurred in the relations between the government and Russian media outlets. In his opinion, two years ago the country had a free-speech "bacchanalia." Today, he asserted media-government relations are "more civilized." Sergei Kovalyov, a Russian MP and the country's leading human rights activist, is convinced that the Kremlin has sent the RFE/RL a warning signal. The authorities, he says, "have drawn a line which [the radio], if it wants to work unhindered in Russia, should not cross."
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist who specializes in CIS political affairs. He has been a Regional Exchange Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Washington DC, and Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow.