Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 30

Radio Liberty has started “the planning process” for broadcasting in Avar, Chechen and Circassian, languages spoken in three republics of Russia’s North Caucasus region–Dagestan, Chechnya and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. On February 8, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Thomas A. Dine announced that the U.S. government-funded station’s managers and staff are currently carrying out “intensive discussions” on how to set up such broadcasts and hire staff. He emphasized, however, that there was “a long way to go”–six to ten months–before the new service would begin operating. Dine said the decision to broadcast in the three languages had been made by the U.S. Senate’s Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees.

Not surprisingly, the Russian government has reacted to the announcement with something less than enthusiasm. Press Minister Mikhail Lesin called the decision “very negative,” “very inappropriate” and “driven by sufficiently serious political motives.” He added: “Chechens know Russian, which is the main language in that territory, and to create such special national autonomy on radio waves is, of course, wrong.” Lesin also said that his ministry would check whether broadcasts in Chechen could threaten Russia’s national security and that it would take action if Radio Liberty were deemed to be violating Russian law. In response, RFE/RL Communications Director Paul Goble said Lesin’s comments reminded him of the Soviet period, when “people in Moscow suggested that it made no sense to broadcast in Belarusan or Ukrainian, while there were many people who would prefer to receive news in their native language” (Russian agencies, Radio Liberty, February 8; Reuters, February 9; Moscow Times, February 12).

RFE/RL, of course, has been on President Vladimir Putin’s blacklist at least since the controversy over Andrei Babitsky, the station’s former correspondent in Chechnya, who was detained in that republic early last year by Russian security forces and later handed over to unknown Chechen gunmen, supposedly in exchange for Russian POWs. It is no surprise, then, that the news that Radio Liberty will begin broadcasting in Chechen has sparked speculation in the Russian media over what retaliatory steps, if any, the Russian authorities might take. Earlier this month–when, prior to the official announcement, Dine reportedly broke the news of the planned Chechen-language broadcasts while on a visit to Latvia–the Gazeta.ru website speculated that the Russian authorities might withdraw Radio Liberty’s license to broadcast on medium-wave stations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The website also cited unnamed Radio Liberty employees as saying that they feared their journalistic accreditation could be withdrawn or that Radio Liberty’s broadcasting to Russia could be banned altogether (Gazeta.ru, February 2). Following the official RFE/RL announcement, a Russian newspaper wrote that it was unlikely that Radio Liberty’s license would be withdrawn, but added that calls to reexamine the status of foreign media in Russia had already been actively discussed by the Russian government (Novaya Gazeta, February 8). Indeed, last autumn, President Vladimir Putin put his signature on an “information security doctrine,” developed by his advisory Security Council, which called on the government to “clarify” the status of foreign media and journalists working in Russia. Some press freedom advocates warned at that time that the doctrine could be used against foreign radio broadcasts (see the Monitor, September 7, 15, 2000). Savik Shuster, who heads Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau, was quoted yesterday as saying that even before the issue of the Chechen broadcasts came up, the station’s affiliates in Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk were threatened with a revocation of their licenses. Shuster said the Russian service of Radio Liberty has played no role in the plans to broadcast in Chechen (Moscow Times, February 12).

It should be noted that, along with Press Minister Lesin, some Russian media have been strongly critical of Radio Liberty’s plans to broadcast in Chechen. The newspaper Vremya Novostei described the planned broadcasts as interference in Russia’s internal affairs and suggested their goal would be the same as special U.S.-funded broadcasts into Iran and Iraq–which, the paper claimed, were aimed at overthrowing those governments. Vremya Novostei also claimed that the Chechen-language broadcasts would bolster those elements in the Russian leadership which are indeed threatening press freedom and would provide “convincing arguments” in favor of revoking Radio Liberty’s right to broadcast inside Russia (Vremya Novostei, February 5).