MOSCOW — Russia’s government is threatening Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty with multimillion-dollar fines and possible criminal charges against its employees, raising the possibility of the American-funded news organization being pushed out of Russia just as President Biden seeks to reorient the U.S. relationship with the Kremlin.
RFE/RL, one of the biggest online news outlets in Russia that does not toe the official line, says the government in recent weeks has notified it of dozens of individual violations of newly restrictive requirements that it label all of its content as being produced by a “foreign agent.” Its editors say that unless the Kremlin changes course, they will be forced to shut down their official presence in the country for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“This is the existential moment for us,” Daisy Sindelar, the editor of RFE/RL, said in a telephone interview from its headquarters in Prague. “It is very clear that the Russian government seeks, in no uncertain terms, our withdrawal from Russia.”
The government’s recent escalation in a long-running pressure campaign against the news outlet shows how President Vladimir V. Putin is raising the stakes in his conflict with Washington just as Mr. Biden takes office. The Kremlin in recent days pledged to ignore Western calls to free the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who was arrested immediately on his return to Russia on Sunday, and said that Russia would withdraw from a treaty that allows countries to fly military surveillance planes over each other’s territory.
And it comes as Mr. Putin faces rising discontent at home, propelled by Russia’s mostly uncensored internet. RFE/RL and its Russian-language video news channel, Current Time, provided live coverage of Mr. Navalny’s homecoming and arrest, and plan to broadcast hours of live coverage of the protests that Mr. Navalny’s supporters are preparing to hold around the country on Saturday.
Years of turmoil within the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees federally funded news outlets abroad, have made RFE/RL more vulnerable to Kremlin pressure, its supporters say. The Trump administration worked to put the former president’s allies in senior positions at the agency, while being relatively restrained in supporting RFE/RL journalists in Russia. That has handed the Biden administration an early quandary about how forcefully to confront the Russian government on the matter.
“The Kremlin appears to be exploiting the chaos at U.S. international broadcasting,” said Jamie Fly, a former head of RFE/RL, who was fired by the Trump administration last summer. “It may just be a tactical move to create issues to barter with a new administration, but this is going to be an administration much more skeptical of cooperation with the Kremlin than the previous one.”
One potential response by the Biden administration could be to take action against Kremlin-funded media outlets, like RT and Sputnik, that target foreign audiences.
“The Russians should be concerned about implications for RT and Sputnik’s operations in the United States if they continue down this path,” Mr. Fly said.
For RFE/RL, founded in the 1950s, fortunes have changed swiftly. Its broadcasts were initially funded through the C.I.A. and were meant to support American foreign policy and undermine Communist regimes. It piped broadcasts out of transmitters positioned from Spain to Taiwan, reporting on the death of Stalin and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In 1991, as the Iron Curtain fell, President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree allowing RFE/RL to open a bureau in Moscow. In Russia, RFE/RL says it now has 58 staffers, works with about 250 freelancers and spends much of its $22 million operating budget on local news reporting across the country and on its news channel, Current Time.
RFE/RL says a 1994 U.S. federal law guarantees its editorial independence, though the Trump administration last year rescinded a rule protecting government-funded news outlets from federal tampering.
Russia in 2017 required RFE/RL to register as a “foreign agent” in retaliation for a similar U.S. move against RT. The designation was initially more of an expensive nuisance than a real obstacle, as RFE/RL spent $1 million on legal fees to comply.
But last October, Russia’s telecommunications regulator required media designated as foreign agents — a list that currently names 17 outlets and individuals, of which 13 are connected to RFE/RL — to prominently label all of their content, even on social media. Video clips were to start with a message saying: “This item was created by a foreign mass media outlet carrying out the functions of a foreign agent.”
RFE/RL did not comply. Doing so, Ms. Sindelar said, would have had “a disastrous effect on our ability to meaningfully engage with our audiences.”
On Dec. 30, Mr. Putin signed into law a bill that made the violation of those rules punishable by up to two years in prison. On Jan. 12, Russia’s telecommunications regulator began serving RFE/RL notice of individual violations for failing to label sites. It signaled that it will issue 130 such violations by Feb. 2, levying at least $480,000 in fines, RFE/RL officials said.
The law could then allow the Russian government to quickly follow up with additional fines of as much as $5 million, block RFE/RL websites, and file criminal charges against employees.
It is not yet clear to what degree the Biden administration, which has promised to stand up more firmly to Mr. Putin and for human rights around the world, will make RFE/RL a priority in that multifaceted confrontation.
“Three RFE/RL contributors have been designated as foreign agents and threatened with prison sentences,” the State Department said in a statement provided to The New York Times after Mr. Biden took office on Wednesday. “They and several media outlets affiliated with RFE/RL now face steep fines for bringing vital, real news to the Russian people. This is intolerable, and we will continue to support the presence of U.S. media and other independent media outlets in Russia.”
Russia’s telecommunications regulator did not respond to a request for comment. But a leading backer of the foreign agent legislation, the lawmaker Andrei Klimov, said RFE/RL had “nothing to do with journalism” and followed “direct orders of the State Department.”
“Their task is to change the political system in Russia,” Mr. Klimov said. He accused Mr. Navalny of being among the “foreign agents” of that U.S. campaign.
Laws on foreign agents, Mr. Klimov said, had needed to be tightened ahead of this September’s nationwide parliamentary elections.
With public discontent in Russia rising, the wide availability of online content critical of the Kremlin is a growing problem for Mr. Putin. The president built his popularity through state control of the television airwaves. But cheap, high-speed internet access has now expanded to just about every populated part of Russia — and the internet in Russia, unlike in China, is mostly free of censorship.
RFE/RL has invested heavily in live coverage of breaking news events that state television mostly ignores, such as last year’s protests in Belarus and in Russia’s Far East. When Mr. Navalny flew home from Berlin on Sunday, two of its journalists were on the plane, and its live coverage of his arrival was viewed more than 7 million times, according to RFE/RL’s regional director for Europe and TV production, Kiryl Sukhotski.
As the passengers disembarked in Moscow, the onboard reporter for Dozhd, an independent Russian online channel that was also covering the events live, ended up on a different bus than Mr. Navalny. So the producers at Dozhd grabbed a live video feed from Mr. Navalny’s bus that was being broadcast by Radio Liberty, allowing their viewers to also witness the final moments before his arrest.
“The more media outlets there are that are not controlled by government censorship, the better,” said Tikhon Dzyadko, Dozhd’s editor. “People are becoming more and more interested in politics and more and more interested in current events.”
Pranshu Verma contributed reporting from Washington.