The US still supports journalism around the world, even if Donald Trump doesn’t

RFE/RL correspondent Alexey Alexandrov covering a protest in Moscow against Putin’s proposal to raise the pension age in May. Credit: RFE/RL

In Ukraine, separatists are holding Stanislav Aseyev, a reporter from the Donbas region, on the eastern border with Russia. In Turkmenistan, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a reporter for the same news organization, is under constant surveillance by police. Last year, another of their distant colleagues, Abadullah Hananzai, was killed by a suicide bomb as he raced to film the carnage of a suicide bomb blast in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The three belong to a corps of 700 foreign reporters that the US government pays to chronicle war, corruption, and politics in 22 countries for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Since its reconfiguration after Cold War, RFE/RL, as it’s known, has attempted to practice the values and standards of good journalism where the press is under threat.

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When RFE/RL’s reporters are imprisoned, it campaigns for their release. When reporters are banned from a country altogether, RFE/RL journalists go undercover and underground. When they are killed, the outlet pays to replace them. When they are harassed and threatened, US ambassadors or State Department officials sometime offer public support and criticize the host country, even if it is otherwise a US ally. Some exiled journalists work at its airy Prague headquarters where a daily story conference resembles a United Nations meeting: 26 languages represented around one large, crowded table.

RFE/RL, now a multi-platform online media outlet, is part of a constellation of US-funded programs that include Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio Marti for Cuba, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. While it’s little known in the US, where, until 2013, its distribution was banned, it reaches a global audience of 34 million a week. Congress has supported the cause: over six years, starting in 2012, its budget has increased by 30 percent to $124 million.

RFE/RL’s growth and tenacity is a bit of good news amid a global resurgence in censorship and President Donald Trump’s ongoing campaign against journalists as “the enemy of the people.” It is “the top-notch standard for civilized journalism in countries where free media are under pressure or almost non-existent,” Jakub Janda, executive director of European Values, a think tank in the Czech Republic, says. It does not have huge audience given its budget, he adds, but its main role is to show people who have not seen good journalism what it looks like—and in that, it succeeds.  

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In Jamal Khashoggi’s last Washington Post piece before his murder, he wrote that the Arab world needed an outlet like RFE/RL.The US funds the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, but his point was the region needs something even stronger. “The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power,” he argued. “During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, which grew over the years into a critical institution, played an important role in fostering and sustaining the hope of freedom. Arabs need something similar.”

RFE/RL stations are also Washington’s open, public way to compete with Russian state-controlled media and disinformation. (A marked change from before 1971, when the program was operated in part by the Central Intelligence Agency.)

Current Time, a Russian-language program co-produced with the Voice of America, now operates 24/7 despite a lack of access to government-controlled airwaves and restrictions that block it from state-funded news aggregators. RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau is the largest it has ever been with 50 staff and 50 freelancers, and another 50 journalists around the country. And last month, after more than a decade, RFE/RL resumed operations in Bulgaria and Romania.

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The reporters’ affiliation with the United States, however, offers them little protection. In 2018 alone, 22 RFE/RL journalists were either killed, injured, assaulted, arrested, imprisoned, or temporarily detained for their work. Three of them died.

Editors and reporters have learned to take special precautions to avoid detection under the most hostile governments. Farruh Yusupov, director of RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, directs an undercover network of reporters in Turkmenistan from the outlet’s headquarters in Prague.

“Only I know their names, and one other person knows some of them,” Yusupov says. Correspondents rely on him for fact-checking help, communicating through encrypted networks and piecing together bits of information from several constrained journalists. “They will get in touch with me, send me the information, and I’ll check it with other sources from different localities.”

Recently, an undercover correspondent recorded and sent out a video showing hundreds of Turkmen villagers lining up for bread. Authorities were unable to identify the videographer but discovered where the video was taken and raided the village in the middle of the night, arresting 50 people. The villagers were released after questioning, but security around the area remained high for several days as the search continued. The videographer wasn’t caught.

In Ukraine, where a flourishing media exists, the government has tried to silence one of RFE/RL’s star reporters, Natalia Sedletska. Her award-winning reporting has led to government efforts to recover millions of Ukrainian hryvnia in taxpayer money stolen by corrupt officials. She and her colleagues have produced dozens of stories about alleged corruption in President Petro Poroshenko’s administration. Sedletska has been the target of death threats and hostile social media campaigns.

In August, Ukraine’s prosecutor general attempted to seize 17 months of Sedletska’s cell phone records, which he said he needed to pursue a leak investigation against the director of the national anti-corruption bureau. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has provisionally upheld Sedletska’s appeal against the move. Although its decision is not binding, Ukraine has so far respected its views.

The prosecutor general’s move “created a dangerous precedent that was not yet in place in Ukraine,” Sedletska tells CJR. “It showed that the court can disclose the sources of journalists…” without giving journalists “the right to appeal, without giving the opportunity to express arguments in the court session.”

Sedletska complained to the European Court of Human Rights, which quickly ruled, in September, that Ukraine should hold off accessing her records for a month. In October, it decided to maintain the decision “until further notice.”

Ukraine has abided by the ECHR rulings. But Sedletska believes the damage is done. Sources and whistleblowers saw that “having trusted contacts with journalists is now dangerous because journalists will not be able to meet their obligations and protect the source,” she says.

Other US allies take an even dimmer view of RFE/RL than Poroshenko does. Pakistan’s intelligence service closed RFE/RL’s Islamabad office in 2018, saying that it was “against the interests of Pakistan.” Azerbaijan closed the Baku bureau after its pieces alleged corruption by the ruling Aliyev family, and earned worldwide attention. (Reporting on both those countries continues from Prague.)

In Afghanistan, where ISIS and the Taliban have destroyed much of the media infrastructure and killed or driven off a new reporting cadre built up in the country in recent years, RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi is still on 12 hours a day. But the dangers of reporting remain. In early February, for instance, RFE/RL covered the story of gunmen shooting two reporters dead in the studios of Radio Hamsada, in the provincial northeast.

RFE/RL’s editorial content is protected from US government interference by federal law. Instead,  an independent body, the US Agency for Global Media (formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors) oversees its operations. The agency is run by John Lansing. “We’re confronting state-sponsored lying directly,” he said at the unveiling of the agency’s new name and logo this fall. “Hopefully we can push the tide of authoritarianism back.”

Trump has nominated Michael Pack to be the new CEO of USAGM. A former executive at the former US Information Agency, which the BBG absorbed in 1999, he is also the former president of the conservative Claremont Institute. His confirmation sits in Congressional limbo. Pack has made documentaries for PBS and, recently, two films with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former strategist and the one-time head of Breitbart. Critics worry about his plans.

Just over a year before his nomination, Pack described a desire to see right-wing politics represented in nonfiction filmmaking in The Federalist, a far-right publication. “Documentaries have been the almost exclusive playground of the Left,” he wrote. He criticized “films decrying global warming, attacking big agriculture, mocking gun ownership, denouncing George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” (Pack declined to comment for this story.)

Whatever the politics in Washington, Temeem Akhgar, a reporter at Radio Azadi in Kabul, is no less determined to do his work. “We call ourselves soldiers with pen,” Akhgar, who was on duty the day his colleague Hananzai was killed,  says. “We never deny going out” on assignment, he adds. But when he and his cohort go to work, “We do kiss our kids, say our last goodbye, leave our bank credit cards at home, and share the code with our family members that if we do not return.” He continues, “We are scared, our hearts do hesitate to go out, but we have no other option. This is the field we choose.”

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Dana Priest, Nicole Kirkner, Rae Wee, and Kerrigan Stern are the authors of this article. Priest is a Washington Post reporter and the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland. Kirkner, Wee and Stern are her students, as are contributors Jordan Fox and Cody Bradshaw.