Jamie Fly: Radio Free Europe Comes Back to Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria

President Jamie Fly comes to RFE/RL as someone with extensive experience in transatlantic relations. Over the last five years, the organization he now heads has changed tremendously, expanding from the legacy media to digital platforms. It has launched Current Time, a 24-hour TV news-channel in Russian, something the Kremlin is not particularly excited about. Fly’s vision is to continue the trend of adaptation to digital, while remaining flexible and able to deploy all platforms according to the audience needs.

In his light-filled spacious office in Prague, he shows me a large framed photograph on the wall. It is a blowup of a color picture taken this past summer in Moscow. There is a Current Time reporter in the photo interviewing a protester lying on the ground, dragged by a riot-police officer. Fly looks proud of the symbolic moment, and of the work his organization does in Moscow and beyond. I ask about their current state of operations in Russia.

“We have a bureau in Moscow and are able to do journalism from there and other parts of Russia. We occasionally run into challenges. Our journalists are often harassed, sometimes our freelancers are detained and there have been attempts to prosecute them on different charges. But we are able to operate in Russia. We have our 24/7 Russian-language network which through its work on social media gets a lot of viewers inside Russia.

Our Russian service covers a wide range of political issues inside Russia and does great work for the Russian audience, so we have been pleased with our reach. I am always looking to expand our audience and some of that requires the Russian government to stop the trend towards more control of the media, closing the media space and making it more difficult for independent media, whether local or international, to operate. We covered the Moscow demonstrations live throughout the summer and the Duma has threatened foreign media. It has claimed that they were inciting the protests.

The other major concern is that the Russian government has announced the potential for it to exert control of the Internet; basically adopting a version of the Chinese firewall. That would be incredibly concerning to anyone who supports freedom of speech and I would imagine that many Russians, and not necessarily fans of opposition, would be unhappy about that,” says Fly.

We also want to be a platform that allows people with all political views to come and present them. That is incredibly important in a democracy.

Can you personally do anything about this on your level: some sort of direct engagement with Russian authorities, for example?

I have not done it yet because I have only been in the job a little over two months,
but I do plan to visit Moscow at some point. I will certainly meet with any Russian officials willing to meet and talk. We’ll see how receptive they are to that.

Recently we see RFL/RL returning to markets that were considered stabilized because they are part of the European Union. What is behind this move?

In the last year we’ve re-launched services in Bulgaria and Romania and next year we will be re-launching a Hungarian service. This is an area where we generally take our strategic direction from our funder, the U.S. Congress. This is an annual process where we get advice about where there is the greatest need in terms of language services. Most of the focus in these countries, which are EU and NATO member states, is not that there is no free media.

It is just not the case in any of them. The challenge is media consolidation. Media that is allowed to operate for the most part were bought by forces aligned with the government and have a political agenda. The result is that most of the media is biased one way or another. It is either incredibly supportive of the government, or there is an opposition press that spends all of its time just attacking the government rather than presenting all sides. So we felt that there is a space for us to return and we have done so in a rather limited way with small digital operations that primarily are putting news and information and video on the web and social media.

Our hope is to do serious journalism, serious investigations and some of the news-gathering that might not be done right now. We also want to be a platform that allows people with all political views to come and present them. That is incredibly important in a democracy. It is something we are trying to do even in countries governed by undemocratic leaders. We routinely invite them to come and in some cases they do. Even if they are not democratically elected, we want their perspective. We will also highlight the oppositions’ perspective.

We feel that it is important to be the type of news organization that actually allows for civic discussion and debate on our platforms. That is our hope for these small news services we’ve launched. They are digital-only operations. We don’t have plans to expand beyond that. There are various segments of the population that are underrepresented, for example, young people who get their news online. We currently do not have plans for a radio or TV broadcast in those EU markets.

Will you have correspondents there?

Yes.

How large will those bureaus be?

They are relatively small bureaus, with a handful of journalists in each country doing original reporting.

Have you met resistance from the governments so far?

The Romanian and Bulgarian re-launch started before I became President so I was not involved. My understanding is that when we announced our intention to return, both governments welcomed us in. We haven‘t had major issues at this point. We are just starting the process in Hungary.

I have visited Budapest and I met with Prime Minister Orbán’s office, his spokesperson, and made clear that once we are up and running we would love to interview government officials and to sponsor debates between government officials and the opposition. We seem to get positive indications about the government‘s willingness to engage with us.

I’m sure none of these countries is pleased that there is an assessment of a need for RFE/RL’s return but we’ve been pretty pleased with our ability to operate thus far in Bulgaria in Romania.

Can we foresee further expansion elsewhere in Central Europe? After all, there are serious issues with media freedom in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

We’ll have to see. A lot of those decisions are made by our Board in Washington after annual assessments of the state of press freedom. Right now there aren’t any active discussions about launching elsewhere, but we’ll just have to see what the trend is.

Russian and other governments increasingly spread disinformation not just here in Central Europe, but also in Western Europe and the U.S. How does RFL/RL cope with the challenge?

It’s become such a huge challenge, and as you said, it’s not just the Russian government. As I started to travel to our bureaus and talk to our staff about the situation they’re facing in their countries, many of the governments are adopting the same tactics of troll farms, spreading fake news and disinformation to their publics to advance their agenda.

Our reporters often get trolled and our news stories get comments that clearly come from those, who are trying to manipulate the narrative about our work. I think some of our best TV programmings that we’ve been doing and that we also put then on social media, are explainer videos debunking the propaganda. They are very effective tools in raising awareness about the facts behind a particular situation.

We do fact-checking and highlighting of particularly prevalent conspiracy theories. If you look at the Skripal poisoning in the UK carried out by the Russian Federation, we have been pointing out many different conspiracy theories Russian state media have put out, showing that they just tried to sow confusion about the facts.

I think we often also forget that just having reputable sources of news and information available in many of these languages is one of the best antidotes to disinformation. I’ve come to believe that our presence in many of these markets is one of the best ways to combat disinformation. It’s an evolving challenge and I think we and other news organizations are going to need to do much more to combat it going forward, especially as new forms develop, for example, so-called deep fakes, those bizarre manipulated videos.

How serious is this challenge? Does it threaten liberal democracy itself?

I tend to be pretty pessimistic about this. Democracy is remarkably resilient and will survive this challenge. What worries me, however, is the corrosion of the truth and increased apathy in many Western publics about fundamental concepts like the truth. It creeps up on people—many don’t realize as they get drawn into biased media.

I think some of our best TV programmings that we’ve been doing and that we also put then on social media, are explainer videos debunking the propaganda. They are very effective tools for raising awareness.

It rattled lots of people in the U.S. in 2016 when they were surprised that due to social media algorithms they were living in bubbles. They were largely consuming news from sources that were saying the same thing, which reinforced preconceived notions that they had about political issues or even society. That’s why we now debate regulating social media. Europe has taken a bit different approach, but I think some of those discussions will be incredibly important in determining how damaging in the long run disinformation will be. It is because of the attack on the truth that I think news outlets like ours are so important.

What is your advantage being funded, and in a way guided in your mission, by the United States government? Is there an edge, a competitive advantage to it?

It allows us in many markets to cover stories that other media cannot. Imagine a commercial TV in a Central Asian region that would want to cover the finances of a family member of a President or conduct a hard-hitting investigation into corruption in a national agency. The political pressure would be such that they just won‘t be able to do it, and would probably shut down.

The fact that we are funded by the U.S. government, even though we are really independent, makes some of those countries deal with us more sensitively and maybe not try to close our operations as quickly as they might in other instances. I’ve been told in my early travels as president that our mere existence there creates additional space for local independent media, which otherwise might not even exist.

Some of the stories that we cover get picked up by local media, which gets them a little bit of top cover. I’ve been told by local activists in one country in Central Asia that because we are there and cover A, B and C, they are at least allowed to cover A. So that kind of prying opening the media ecosystem helps create some broader space for freedom of expression in some of these countries.

I’m just talking about the more authoritarian states here. Countries like Georgia and Ukraine have a different issue. There the problem is no choice, but too many. You have individuals connected with the government or the opposition with their own TV channels, so some viewers may be hungry for a brand that is seen as not having a party, nationalistic or political ideology. We actually play an important role beyond just the people that we reach with the news that we provide, and that is the role of–to some extent–influencing media ecosystems in some countries.

Some European observers believe that the United States has been steadily disengaging from Europe. On the other hand, your institution is expanding. How do you see these fears?

I think that our continued existence here and a robust presence—we have actually expanded in the last five years and our budget has increased—is all a sign of continued U.S. commitment to Europe. It is also an important part of the U.S.- Czech relationship. We hosted the Mayor of Prague here a couple of weeks ago. I have met the Foreign Minister recently and will host him here within the next month. The Czech officials I’ve spoken to really see our presence as relevant.

Next year it will be 25 years since we have moved to this city, which is among other things part of President Václav Havel’s legacy, since he played a key role in attracting the Radio from Munich to Prague. And I do think we play an important role from yet another perspective. There are European broadcasters like Deutsche Welle and others operating in some of the same markets as we are, but in some places, there are really no European or EU-funded media conducting similar work, which has been interesting to me as someone who has worked a great deal on the transatlantic relationship.

We are actually carrying the independent media water in a number of places, as we would say in the United States, by ourselves. The continued commitment of the U.S. Congress, despite budgetary pressures and despite a lot of the political debates that are going on in the United States, to RFE/RL should be seen as a reassuring sign of the continued U.S. commitment to the continent.

Jamie Fly was one of the speakers at the Aspen Disinformation workshop—read more about it in the article by Jenda Žáček here.

Jamie Fly

was appointed RFE/RL President and Chief Executive Officer by the RFE/RL Board of Directors on 10 July 2019, effective 1 August 2019. Prior to his appointment, Fly served as a senior fellow, co-director of the Alliance for Security Democracy, and director of the Future of Geopolitics and Asia programs at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. He served as a counselor for Foreign and National Security Affairs to Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) from 2013-17, serving as his foreign policy advisor during his presidential campaign. Prior to joining Senator Rubio’s staff in February 2013, he served as the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) from its founding in early 2009. Prior to joining FPI, Fly served in the Bush administration at the National Security Council (2008-09) and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (2005-08). His articles and reviews have been published in a wide variety of outlets in the United States and Europe. For his work in the Department of Defense, he was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service. Fly received a B.A. in International Studies and Political Science from American University and an M.A. in German and European Studies from Georgetown University.

Tomáš Klvaňa

is Visiting Professor at New York University Prague and Senior International Management Consultant. His most recent book is Perhaps Even a Dictator Will Show Up (Možná přijde i diktátor, Bourdon Prague 2017).

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