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Russia threatens to kick out U.S. journalists unless U.S. treats Russian media better

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Earlier this week, Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned journalists and representatives from U.S. media companies working in Russia for a chat. The journalists were there to learn the, quote, "consequences of what Russia says is hostile treatment of Russian media working in the U.S."

NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes was one of the journalists at that meeting, and he's here to tell us about it. We're also joined by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hi, Charles and David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi.

PFEIFFER: Charles, take us into that room, that Zoom call, wherever that meeting happened. What did the Foreign Ministry have to say?

MAYNES: Sure. Yeah. This was a meeting called by the Foreign Ministry's head of information and press, Maria Zakharova. Now, Zakharova offered a litany of complaints about the treatment of Russian media in the U.S. She said Russian journalists were having problems getting visas. She said these journalists' bank accounts have been blocked. She also complained that Russian state media and, indeed, Zakharova's own Foreign Ministry briefings had been banned from American social media platforms like YouTube, as well as cable broadcasting. And she alleged that Russian media staffers have been harassed by American authorities. And Zakharova's main point was that all of this made working conditions for Russian media in the U.S. next to impossible.

PFEIFFER: So according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, what are the implications if things don't change from their perspective?

MAYNES: Well, Zakharova, you know, she issued a warning or a threat, depending on how you want to look at it - that is, if the situation with Russian media doesn't change in the U.S., all American media working in Russia can expect the same treatment. Now, Russia's policies are often couched in terms of what's called (non-English language spoken), mirror responses - in other words, a tit for tat.

Of course, you know, NPR or New York Times or Washington Post and others are independent media with no direct input on U.S. policy or, say, the policies of tech giants like Google, which owns YouTube. You know, we're just here to report on Russia. And that doesn't seem to be a winning argument amid the wider politics of the moment.

PFEIFFER: The State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, disputed Moscow's account about the treatment of Russian journalists in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NED PRICE: The United States continues to issue visas to qualified Russian journalists, and we have not revoked the foreign press center credentials of any Russian journalists working in the United States.

PFEIFFER: David, what's the truth here?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Price went on to note that the Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on some media outlets that are linked directly to the Russian government. He mentioned Russia-1 and NTV. This really goes back, funnily enough, to the early days of the Trump administration in 2017, at which point Russian news outlets were required to register as foreign agents. The Biden administration has added more. That's really given cover to cable providers, satellite providers to bounce RT America, which shut down. RT is listed as a foreign actor now. In some ways, the real repercussion is in Russia and in other states because this gives cover to Russian officials to say, hey, they're making our guys list as foreign agents. We can do that. And in fact, we can go further.

PFEIFFER: Charles, a step back question for you - what is the overall media environment like in Russia right now?

MAYNES: Well, it's highly restrictive. You know, there are new laws that criminalize any reporting that counters the official line amid what the Kremlin calls its special military operation in Ukraine. Independent Russian media have either closed or fled abroad amid risks of criminal prosecution for doing their job. And there's no question, you know, there are risks. You know, several Russian journalists have been snared by these laws, and they face 10 to 15 years for, quote, "denigrating the Russian army." Of course, these same penalties apply to society at large. You know, some 2,000 people have been charged. So it's put a chill on the information generally, including those who will talk to the media, both domestic and foreign.

PFEIFFER: David, that situation Charles just described, what does it do for the flow of information?

FOLKENFLIK: And that's the crux of all of this, right? The U.S. government says it's acting against propaganda, people concerned about misinformation. But what about reliable information? So you've seen this really constrict the flow of critical media coverage of Russia and of independent coverage of Ukraine in the West. You're hearing a near-total domination of messaging by the state.

So in a sense, I think it's fair to argue that there are ways in which the U.S. actions are having a boomerang effect. It's letting a regime that already doesn't much like a free press become even harsher on it, making it even harder to get out the facts.

Case in point, sitting here in the U.S., I can say that Russia is fighting a war in Ukraine. A reporter in Russia probably can't because he or she would risk imprisonment under current Russian laws for saying so. That makes it not only really hard to get information that is accurate out of Russia, it affects the ability of people inside Russia to understand what's really happening.

PFEIFFER: NPR's David Folkenflik in the U.S. and NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.