A senior EU official has called for a “Radio Free Russia” to help independent Russian media distribute content in their home country and evade heavy censorship.
Vĕra Jourová, the European Commission vice-president in charge of values and transparency, said the EU had a moral duty to support democratic ideals in Russia: “We should not give up on the Russian society … regardless of how few or how many want to hear the real news, not Kremlin propaganda.”
During a speech at Estonia’s foreign ministry, Jourová called for a Radio Free Russia project to support independent Russian media that have been expelled or fled their home country.
The project did not mean establishing a new radio station, she said, but supporting journalists in the EU, so they could “produce more content and distribute it more widely without any editorial interference”.
“We need to create the conditions for them to work and tell the story of the EU they see and experience to their Russian audiences. It is not only a moral duty, it is in our self-interest,” she added.
Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and clampdown on free speech, Russia’s last independent media outlets have relocated to the EU. Novaya Gazeta, which known for its fearless investigations into corruption and Russia’s wars, is now published in Riga. Also based in the Latvian capital since 2014, is the independent website Meduza, which describes itself as the “largest uncensored Russian language news outlet in the world”.
Working in exile has brought trouble for some outlets. In December Latvian authorities revoked the broadcasting licence for the independent TV station Dozhd, citing “threats to public security and national order”. The decision was taken after a news anchor, who was later fired, described Russian forces as “our army”.
Dozhd, or TV Rain, had been fined by Latvia’s media regulator for broadcasting a map that showed Crimea as part of Russia and failing to provide Latvian subtitles. Dozhd condemned the decision to revoke its licence as unfair and absurd.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has passed draconian laws to smother free expression, including 15-year prison sentences for spreading “fake” information about the war. The clampdown continued this week when Russia’s general prosecutor designated Meduza as an “undesirable organisation”, having already classified it as a “foreign agent” last year.
The move in effects outlaws the news website reporting on Russia by threatening criminal prosecution on any of its journalists, sources and donors. Meduza, which is already blocked by internet censors, said it would continue to report events in Russia, including to “millions” of readers in the country.
The EU proposal opens up the possibility that outlets such as Meduza could receive funding, although it is not clear what level of financial or technical support could be provided to help outlets get around the Russian firewalls.
A European Commission spokesperson said Radio Free Russia was “a work in progress” and was not able to reveal details, including its budget. “The idea is to develop a coordinated strategy bringing together independent media providing content in Russian and supporting technical means to reach people in Russia,” they said.
In her speech in Tallinn, Jourová evoked memories of growing up in communist-era Czechoslovakia, as she remembered “those that did not give up on us”. She recalled her parents gathered around the radio to listen to Radio Free Europe or Voice of America and “the unspoken anxiety of these moments”.
Voice of America was founded in 1942 by the US government as a counter to Nazi propaganda and continued its work during the cold war. It was followed by Radio Free Europe, created in 1948, to broadcast news in local languages to Soviet satellite states.
Looking back to last year, Jourová said Poland and the Baltic states had been right to warn of a Russian invasion, while unnamed “others” had been wrong.
In what will be read as a criticism of Germany over its prevarication in sending tanks to Ukraine, she urged “those who hesitate” to listen to central and eastern European states in their analysis of Putin. Without naming specific countries, she said: “When in doubt, listen to their advice and follow their lead. Every minute of hesitation is costing lives.”
Central and eastern European countries, Jourová added, had to cast off the “mental label of the new member states” and “get better in promoting our ideas and our vision of Europe on security, on defence, on economy and on enlargement”.