Radio Liberty, which has irritated President Vladimir Putins Kremlin with its coverage of Chechnya, has been stripped of the special legal status it had enjoyed since 1991.
In a decree released Friday, Putin revoked a decree issued by President Boris Yeltsin during the democratic euphoria of August 1991 that granted Radio Liberty, a U.S.-funded Russian-language radio station, the right to open its Moscow bureau and gave Radio Liberty reporters the freedom to work unhindered throughout Russia.
Radio Liberty said the decision would have no immediate effect on its operations.
The Kremlins information department said Yeltsins decree "was meant to demonstrate the new Russian leaderships commitment to freedom of speech and press," Interfax reported. But over time, laws allowing free media were developed, while Radio Liberty remained in a privileged position compared with other Russian and foreign media. Putins decree, the Kremlin said, "restores justice on the Russian information playing field."
At the same time, a Kremlin official complained that despite the end of the Cold War and a new trust in Russian-U.S. relations, the editorial policy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, or RFE/RL, "has not only failed to lose its ideological bias but recently acquired an even more tendentious character."
"One can see it clearly in its broadcasts to Chechnya and Ukraine, when the choice of news is selective and one-sided," the unnamed official told Interfax.
He added, however, that the decree had nothing to do with RFE/RLs editorial policy.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov informed U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell of the decision in a telephone conversation Thursday night.
The Foreign Ministry said Friday that Powell had not objected, Russian news agencies reported.
Radio Liberty officials said they were unworried if the decree meant nothing more than the station losing its special status. "If we are treated in accordance with codified international norms for freedom of the media, there is nothing wrong with this decree," RFE/RL spokeswoman Sonya Winter said by telephone from Prague, where the station has its headquarters. "But if it is another expression of harassment and discrimination, then we would not be happy."
Yelena Glushkova, the Moscow representative for RFE/RL, said she had been in touch with the Foreign Ministry on Friday and received assurances that the bureaus accreditation remained valid and that it would not have to re-register.
She said the decree would not affect the stations broadcasting in Russia, which is carried out by a Russian subsidiary that holds the license to the frequency. "I tend to think that this is just a technical decision aimed at unifying the legal base for media organizations," she said.
Radio Liberty Moscow bureau chief Andrei Shary said he was waiting for further clarification of the stations status.
Igor Yakovenko, the head of the Russian Union of Journalists, said Putins decree did not raise any red flags, but he said he planned to keep a close eye on the situation.
"It is wrong when all of the media have their freedom guaranteed by the law and one gets a decree on top of it," he said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "But we know that our authorities can apply the law selectively, as was the case with NTV and TV6. If nothing changes for Radio Liberty, it will mean that the government is simply leveling the playing field. But if the station begins to have problems, it will mean that President Putins decree is political."
Despite its relatively small audience, Radio Liberty has historically occupied a special place among both foreign and Russian-language media. It was built during the Cold War years by merging U.S. government funding and broadcast facilities with the talent of Soviet bloc refugees. The radios mission was conceived as a "surrogate" local free media to fill a void of information created by Communist censorship and thus help undermine the Soviet system. The station, which was repeatedly jammed by the Soviet government, served as an important source of news and opinion for anti-establishment Russian intellectuals.
Radio Liberty has always heavily focused on the political scene, and it continues to declare the promotion of liberal democracy as one of its main goals. Although its Moscow bureau currently has some of Russias best reporters on its staff, its criticism of the Kremlin, its inherent dissident mentality and its emphasis on minority rights are often perceived here as anti-Russian.
Yeltsins decree, which was issued Aug. 27, 1991, just days after the collapse of the hard-line coup attempt, singled out Radio Liberty for its role in reporting about "democratic processes" in Russia and particularly "the activities of the legal leadership of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic during the coup detat in the U.S.S.R." It allowed Radio Liberty to open a permanent bureau in Moscow and instructed Russias Foreign Ministry to accredit its correspondents. It also instructed the mayor of Moscow to "allocate space" for the bureau and asked the Press and Communications ministries to provide the bureau with "communication channels."
Glushkova said the bureau has always paid for its office space and broadcasting channels on a commercial basis. "We have never felt privileged," she said.
She described the 1991 decree as "a safe-conduct pass for Yeltsins term of rule" and said it might be important for journalists but not for running the bureau.
Radio Liberty has invoked Yeltsins decree several times in defending its editorial policy on Chechnya from a furious Kremlin. That was the case in January 2000, when Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky, who was accused by Russian officials of taking a pro-rebel stance in his reporting, was arrested in Chechnya and later exchanged for Russian prisoners held by the separatists.
In January this year, the Kremlins chief spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, expressed outrage at a RFE/RL decision to begin broadcasting in three Caucasus languages, including Chechen. He warned that the government would monitor the stations coverage and might revoke its Russian broadcasting license.
In April, RFE/RL launched the Chechen broadcasts, as mandated by Congress two years earlier.
Glushkova said the Moscow bureau was not aware of ever being monitored.
Press Ministry spokesman Yury Akinshin said Radio Liberty would be allowed to continue business as usual. "We have no grounds to revoke its license," he said. "All it [Putins decree] means is that it will continue developing on the basis of the law and not on [Yeltsins] decree. It should feel like an ordinary company in Russia, not a privileged one."
The station has a license to broadcast until next year on 1044 AM in Moscow, according to The New York Times.
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.