The current “no limits” partnership forged by China and Russia presents the democratic world, and especially the United States, with its most ominous threat in many decades. The Beijing-Moscow axis has brought together two seemingly confident powers whose ambitions stretch far beyond their own territories and who have proved willing to use coercive diplomacy, hardball economics, and—with the Ukraine war—military might, to achieve their goals.
The two countries have more recently expanded their cooperation in another sphere: information and propaganda. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has harmonized its media accounts with the Kremlin’s talking points. China has taken care to refer to the conflict as a “special military operation;” has dismissed the Bucha massacre as a hoax; has asserted that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is controlled by the United States; and has maintained that the West’s policies are responsible for the war.
These messages are not meant primarily to convince Western audiences, but are directed at the Global South. Judging by some polls that show support for Russian arguments on the war in non-aligned countries, there is evidence that these investments are paying off.
The United States can no longer avert its eyes from the seriousness of the threat that Beijing and Russia pose to democracy. Nor can we afford to ignore that the “war on people’s minds” has been reignited by strongmen for whom freedom of expression is anathema. Nor, finally, can we avoid the challenge of building our own instruments to make the case for freedom of thought and communication, or of supporting existing institutions that have a solid record of achievement in the war against censorship, falsehood, and disinformation.
Among the most important of these existing institutions is RFE/RL.
RFE/RL was originally two separate international broadcasting stations: Radio Free Europe, which focused on audiences in the East European satellite countries, and Radio Liberty, which broadcast to a Soviet audience in Russian and in the languages of the non-Russian republics. Both were launched as part of American early Cold War policy toward the Soviet Union. The goal was to penetrate Stalin’s Iron Curtain through short-wave radio broadcasts, then a common platform for international media. George F. Kennan was the official responsible for the creation of RFE and RL. Kennan and others were convinced that the conflict with Moscow had to be waged on a much broader field than traditional geopolitical diplomacy, to involve culture, economics, and information more broadly.
The two radio stations proved among the most successful innovations of Cold War diplomacy. Up through World War II, government international broadcasting emphasized news and/or propaganda that reflected developments in the broadcasting country. RFE and RL were something radically different: They were surrogate broadcasters, functioning as a kind of independent opposition media for countries under Communist rule. Thus, Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian language service focused on developments in Hungary, while Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service zeroed in on developments in Ukraine, including Moscow’s efforts to suppress Ukrainian national memory.
During the early years the stations carried a combination of news programs and hard-hitting commentaries. Both were funded clandestinely by the CIA. After the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which RFE’s Hungarian service was accused of having encouraged, oversight was effectively transferred to the State Department and strict journalistic standards were implemented. In the 1970s, Congress merged the two stations and established RFE/RL as a quasi-government entity, funded by Congress but governed by a board of private citizens, to prevent manipulation by politicians, ideological groups, or by an organized diaspora.
RFE/RL broadcasts illuminated a wide variety of history, current events, and culture. During the 1970s, Russian listeners of Radio Liberty heard readings from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, thus learning the true story of Stalin’s network of penal camps. During the 1980s, Poles were kept informed about the latest actions of the Solidarity movement, provoking a high government official to grouse that the quickest way to subdue the independent trade union would be to shut down RFE.
He was not alone in treating RFE as a dangerous adversary. Straightforward presentations of the latest news subverted any totalitarian project that relied on command over information for survival. Every major RFE/RL language service was a target of espionage and violent attacks, including efforts to place agents on the staff, to assassinate journalists, and even to bomb its Munich headquarters. Dissidents like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel were devoted listeners, as were future leaders of post-communist democracies, including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
After the Soviet Union’s demise, some proposed eliminating RFE/RL. President Bill Clinton downsized the stations by eliminating most of the European language services, while retaining broadcasts to Russia and its former republics (with the exception of the Baltics countries). In subsequent years RFE/RL expanded its audience to several Balkan countries, as well as to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. Today, it broadcasts to twenty-three countries.
There were times during the early post-Soviet years that RFE/RL’s mission seemed elusive. Its audience countries were a mixed bag of autocracy, illiberalism, and weak democracy. In those optimistic years, democracy seemed to be an irresistible force. But by the early 2000s, it was apparent that conditions were worsening in Russia, with ripple effects throughout Russia’s neighborhood. The new Kremlin leader, Vladimir Putin, was intent on building an autocratic state with little room for free media: RFE/RL’s Russian service was among Putin’s first victims.
In the Putin system, control of the political message and aggressive information warfare play a pivotal role, both domestically and in the Kremlin’s belligerent diplomacy. Where Radio Moscow and other Soviet-era instruments belabored the great achievements of Marxism-Leninism, today’s Russian propaganda concentrates on Western decline, American perfidy, and supposed Nazi domination of Ukraine. The keynotes are hammered non-stop, loudly, and from all angles—what RAND researchers have called a “firehose of falsehood,”—and they influence the media environment well beyond Russia, especially in Central European and Balkans countries.
Beyond the message itself, RFE/RL faces a more imminent problem in the evolving nature of media technology, and with the proliferating methods of tech censorship that autocrats are constantly refining.
The technical revolution in media delivery means that RFE/RL can no longer be competitive as a simple broadcast network. Today, RFE/RL is best described as a multi-platform media that reaches its audience through radio, television, videos, YouTube, websites, and social media.
Patrick Boehler, head of RFE/RL’s office of innovation and audience engagement, describes the current challenge: Regimes “have blocked our website, removed us from nationally controlled social media platforms, and harassed our friends in their countries.” The most powerful autocracies, he says, are “trying to turn the internet into a ‘splinternet’ that places the state in control of internet and social media messages.”
Modern autocrats try to avoid the more obvious forms of censorship. Instead, as Boehler notes, they create an “illusion of freedom whereby the public is inundated by an avalanche of pro-regime content over an internet that is close to a pure national net.” This form of information manipulation is unlike the old censorship systems, where books and newspapers were simply removed or torched, actions which left the kind of “deafening silence” that people noted and resented. Instead, legitimate news and commentary are supplanted by a cacophony of regime-friendly voices that can seem like a multitude of perspectives but are actually a fixture of state information strategy.
RFE/RL must also contend with harassment of its journalists. Surveillance is a constant, as is hacking. “For all their wonderful features, smart phones are vulnerable to the subtleties of modern hacking techniques,” says Boehler, “with the result that a confidential interview subject can be identified or email messages copied and those who sent the messages detained.” Predictably, RFE/RL journalists are subject to social media hate campaigns carried out by troll farms, where hundreds of threats are directed each day toward journalists to exhaust and demoralize them. Additionally, a number of RFE/RL journalists have been jailed in recent years, and three are currently imprisoned: Andrei Kuznechyk and Ihar Losi, both from the Belarus service, and Vladyslav Yesypenko, a contributor to the Ukraine service’s Crimea Realities program.
RFE/RL trains its journalists on how to counter electronic censorship, and it also collaborates with a network of projects established to protect freedom of information and independent journalism. Among specific steps meant to protect journalists and contacts is the use of burner phones in risky environments, sharing tools that allow audiences to “jump the firewall” erected by Russia and other countries, and monitoring regime blocking efforts to enable the RFE/RL staff to replicate its site immediately after a blocking is identified.
As for the RFE/RL message, much of its job remains the same as it has always been: providing accurate information about issues that the state tries to conceal or pervert. The stable of journalists, however, differs in some important ways from the Cold War-era staff. In early days, the language services hired emigres who had fled Communism or sometimes, Nazism. These experiences shaped their intellectual outlook and gave them a unique grasp of totalitarian methods and arguments. Many had worked as journalists; some were intellectuals or academics. Today, RFE/RL staff often come from international media organizations or from recently shut down media outlets in their home countries, where the traditional values of accuracy, facts, and an even-handed presentation have been the norm. They are experienced in the coverage of breaking events and on-the-ground developments; some (like with the Ukraine language journalists) even include experienced war zone correspondents. In countries where RFE/RL is tolerated, journalists attend press conferences, interview officials, and investigate corruption scandals. Their professionalism is important given the scrutiny from governments and from diaspora groups that regard themselves as stakeholders in the RFE/RL message.
Jamie Fly, the current president of RFE/RL, says that the nature of modern journalism has meant that the network is “more aligned with modern newsrooms than was the case during the Cold War.” “We are still mission-driven,” he notes, “but we also pay attention to the evolving technology and other changes in modern journalism.” Fly adds that as autocracies are gathering strength anew, the mission of RFE/RL has moved somewhat closer to its mission during the Cold War.
Now we are being driven back in the direction of a Cold War model where journalists had to do their jobs from outside the country. Now we have to determine how to reach contacts, verify information—all the things a journalist needs to do but with the added handicap of having to do this from outside the borders of the audience.
After the invasion of Ukraine, for instance, the station management decided to pull its staff from Russia and relocate them in nearby countries after Russian authorities initiated bankruptcy proceedings against the RFE/RL Russian entity for failure to pay approximately $17 million in new fines. RFE/RL has also opened offices for exiled Russian journalists in Latvia, and for displaced Belarusian journalists in Lithuania.
The challenge of developing a response to Russian wartime propaganda is a project that consumes much of the station’s energies. An immediate complication is presented by the fact that Putin’s appeal to Russian chauvinism is a more potent message than the Communist theme of the universal struggle against capitalism. Russian propagandists are also more nuanced and slippery than during the heyday of Radio Moscow: For Kremlin propagandists, convincing people that its arguments are persuasive is a triumph. But simply leaving people baffled or mystified also counts as a win. The proliferation of Moscow’s talking points has contributed to an attitude of bewilderment and surrender, summed up by the comment, frequently voiced in RFE/RL audience countries: “Who knows who started the war.”
To enhance their ability to counter Russian disinformation, RFE/RL works with Bellingcat, an organization that has an impressive record of analyzing Kremlin lies, while developing what Jeremy Bransten, the station’s chief editor, has described as a capability for “digital forensic investigations” aimed at Putin’s messaging system.
Bransten acknowledges that Moscow retains the initiative in the messaging war: “The problem is that you’re always playing catch-up and in response mode.” The Russian service has regular programs devoted to analyzing and answering disinformation, such as Moscow’s biggest lie, that Ukraine is dominated by Nazi leaders, fighters, and thinking. Current Time, a 24/7 Russian language television and digital network, includes a program that dissects how a particular issue is dealt with on Russian state TV. There are programs devoted to evaluations of the origins, routing chain, and eventual destination of Russian talking points, including how a disinformation item which originates in Moscow gets picked up by a Serbian news service, then echoed by a Serbian politician, then quoted by the press in a neighboring country as if its source was the Serbian politician and not the Kremlin.
The war has brought important changes to the Russian audience. Prior to the conflict, the station appealed to educated Russians who had attained a place in the economy, and—if not hostile to Putin—who were open to differing perspectives. With the war, a significant part of the network’s audience has fled the country, while the remaining Russian public is divided along starkly black-and-white lines. The grey zone of the open-minded has dwindled. Even so, the station’s wartime Russian audience has increased substantially, especially over YouTube, as people have sought reliable information over items such as Putin’s mobilization order.
Not just Russia, but also China is getting additional attention. The countries of Central Asia have been a Belt and Road Initiative priority, and China has also made efforts to solidify economic and political relations in Central Europe and the Balkans, winning influential friends in Serbia and Hungary. RFE/RL has hired a China expert to help focus attention on relevant issues like debt traps and covid diplomacy.
In another recent move, RFE/RL has relaunched its broadcasts to Hungary, as Hungary has veered from liberal democracy to semi-autocracy under Viktor Orbán. His ruling party has transformed the media there from diverse and lively to a blatantly partisan instrument meant to solidify his domination of the state. Balazs Orbán (no relation to Viktor), an aide to the prime minister, has even declared (in pure Orwellian phrases) that control of the media means control over the minds of the people.
The Hungarian government’s determination to manipulate the political message suggests an important role for RFE/RL. Among its first major breakthroughs, the service aired tapes it had acquired of state broadcast editors instructing the staff which institutions and personalities were to be given preferential airtime and which were to be ignored, depending on proven loyalty to the ruling party.
Along with the BBC, the Voice of America, and other international pillars of free expression, RFE/RL has been accorded credit, however insufficient, for its part in the progress of liberal democracy in the late 20th century. The 21stcentury challenge, however, is more direct, and more sinister. For contemporary autocrats, media capture is the golden key for their grand scheme of gaining, and especially retaining, power. To this end, modern autocrats have an advantage they previously lacked, in the distressing erosion of faith in the democratic idea that is currently on display among politicians, parties, movements, and even media personalities in some of the world’s leading free countries, the United States front and center.
Recent events suggest that RFE/RL, an institution that has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, is not immune to the consequences of aggressive partisanship. In 2020, the agency that governs America’s international media, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, was convulsed by President Trump’s appointment of a new CEO who notably lacked experience in international media, and who betrayed no interest in or respect for the achievement and mission of America’s international voices. That new CEO, Michael Pack, immediately announced an across-the-board purge of media chief executives, including of Jamie Fly, replacing highly regarded managers with people lacking any expertise in leading America’s international media at a moment when Russia, China, and Iran were moving swiftly to expand their message to a broad global public. Pack was dismissed by President Biden, with Fly again being named as RFE/RL president. But the incident was not reassuring.
According to an often-invoked adage, the suppression of truth by dictatorships is evidence of fragility. But in today’s environment, linking repression to weakness can contribute to self-deception and complacency. The current generation of strongmen understand and are dedicated to prevailing over their systems’ built-in weaknesses. They have devoted intense study to the lessons of the Soviet collapse, and they have adopted measures to prevent their succumbing to a similar fate. Aside from control over the security apparatus, their first priority is domination of the political message. Social media makes that objective easier to achieve, which has opened up possibilities that previous generations of strongmen could only dream of—the means to share their messages, at scale, with vast audiences in democracies and with societies in the grey zones between freedom and autocracy.
The free world was fortunate that at the dawn of the Cold War there were leaders who understood the nature of the Soviet system and its threat to freedom. The danger today is more daunting, however, and until recently, the response of America and other democracies has been unsteady, indecisive, and lacking a unified voice. This comes at a consequential moment as Putin and Xi Jinping solidify their alliance and commit to a war on ideas and information that will only intensify the vilification of America, labelling every false step of democracy as further evidence of moral and political decay.
In this struggle, we are fortunate to have an asset like RFE/RL with its impressive history of achievement, with a leadership that understands the nature of the challenge, and with a corps of journalists who day-after-day tell a critical audience about the bombardments, persecution, corruption, and petty injustices that are the hallmarks of autocratic rule. They cope with the maddening complexities of modern technology with an impressive and very American self-assurance that the message will get through.
Arch Puddington is emeritus scholar at Freedom House and the author of Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
Note: American Purpose Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Gedmin is the former president and CEO of RFE/RL, and a current member of its Board of Directors.
Image: Broadcasters of the Afghan Service preparing to go on air with the latest news. (RFE/RL)
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