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Russia Cracks Down On U.S. Broadcaster RFE/RL

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier this hour, we told you about the Israeli airstrike that destroyed a building housing journalists in Gaza. We have another story about journalists under a different kind of threat. We're talking about the Russian government, which is putting financial pressure on a U.S.-funded media organization, one that has a huge network of reporters across Russia. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, also known as RFE/RL, is facing almost $2.5 million in fines. And yesterday, the Russian government froze their bank accounts. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, this is adding to an already long list of diplomatic disputes with Moscow.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: RFE/RL is a Cold War-era institution that was invited to formally open up a Moscow bureau when Boris Yeltsin was Russia's president. But Vladimir Putin's government has been cracking down, labeling RFE/RL as a foreign agent and demanding that it include disclaimers on its social media posts. Its president, Jamie Fly, is having none of it.

JAMIE FLY: It would also require 15-second trailers prior to every social media video, so much so that we estimate we would've lost half of our audience overnight if we had complied.

KELEMEN: The audience is all online these days. Russia kicked the network off the airwaves about a decade ago. But Fly says that he has hundreds of Russian journalists filing for him, and they won't back down from their reporting even if Russian authorities closed the Moscow bureau.

FLY: If they want to go this route and think that they're somehow going to silence our voice by shutting down a physical presence, they are going to be sadly mistaken because we will double down our efforts to reach the Russian audience.

KELEMEN: RFE/RL's regional director for Europe is gearing up for that, moving some staff to a regional hub in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. The State Department has been raising concerns about Russia's crackdown on the U.S. government-funded media organization. Deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter says the U.S. is, quote, "deeply disturbed that Russian authorities froze RFE/RL's bank accounts."

JALINA PORTER: This is Russia's latest attempt to suppress independent media and deny the Russian people access to objective news.

KELEMEN: Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismisses what she calls the whining coming from top U.S. officials about this, saying journalists in Russia have to follow the law. This dispute comes ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken's first face-to-face meeting with his Russian counterpart. They will see each other on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting this coming week in Iceland. They have many other disputes to resolve, including Russia's decision not to allow the U.S. embassy to employ local staff.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.