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Radio Free Europe: Cold War-era broadcaster's mission still relevant in 2023

Radio Free Europe in 2023
Radio Free Europe’s return to prominence in Russia and former Soviet territories | 60 Minutes 13:14

Americans familiar with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty might consider them Cold War relics, vestiges of a time when broadcasting straight news behind the Iron Curtain was considered key to promoting democracy. But with a new Cold War descending and a hot war blazing in the heart of Europe, RFE/RL – as they're also known – are back in vogue. With a $20 million boost from Congress – the U.S.-taxpayer-funded broadcasters are beaming and streaming original content – mostly video these days – into many of the same former Soviet republics they targeted in the 1950s.

Marian Kushnir is a familiar face on Radio Free Europe.

A Ukrainian war correspondent, he's been slogging alongside his country's troops with his camera ever since the Russians invaded.

We spoke with him in November from a Prague control room alongside his editor. Kushnir was in Bakhmut, under siege by Russian troops.

  Marian Kushnir

Marian Kushnir (Translation): I will say this in Ukrainian. This is the place where they help Ukrainian soldiers who come here from the frontline. This is a field hospital. There are about 100 wounded in here.

Bill Whitaker: You were talking about the routine of it all, but does it feel to you that you are daily putting yourself in harm's way?

Marian Kushnir (Translation): This is the war. I am always at risk. Even being right here in this hospital I understand that next to it some shelling is happening right at this moment, but everyone in Ukraine is now in danger.

Kushnir's harrowing accounts can be seen in many formats: live television, YouTube,  TikTok - conveying as much as he can the reality of humanity's ultimate folly.

Marian Kushnir (Translation): The war for me is the stench of blood, gunpowder, sweat and constant mud… And there is no romance about the war. It is about fear, grief and tears. No footage, photos or words can express what is happening right here on the battlefield.

Jamie Fly: We're an international, public broadcaster. And we operate in countries where freedom of the press either does not exist or is under assault.

Jamie Fly, a former adviser to the George W. Bush administration, is the president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which has been based in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, since 1995. 

Jamie Fly: We're funded by the U.S. Congress. But by law, we're editorially independent of the U.S. government.

Bill Whitaker: Today it's not just radio, it's mostly video, correct?

Jamie Fly: Yeah. So, we constantly are debating when to change the name. And that may come in the years ahead.

Bill Whitaker: So it's mostly seen on the internet?

Jamie Fly: It varies, depending on what market we're in. In Iran, we're on radio. Pakistan we're available on radio. But in places like Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, people are primarily engaging with our content on social media. 

  Jamie Fly

This modern newsroom is like a journalistic version of the United Nations.

Each service – Russian, Ukrainian, Iranian and 19 others – is made up of emigres and expats from those countries. They have their own newsrooms and broadcast facilities.

Jamie Fly: You can read our journalistic standards document online. And we have a rigorous editorial process that determines what we cover.

Jamie Fly: I visit as many of our 20 bureaus as possible.

Russia's multibillion-dollar effort to push disinformation abroad has given the Cold War radios new life. They're adding two new bureaus and constructing studios here in Prague for an additional Russian language channel featuring documentaries, music, and comedies. Fly says 40 million people from 23 countries across this broad landmass tune in to their coverage, 11 million inside Russia, despite the Kremlin's labeling them a "foreign agent."

Jamie Fly: That is a common refrain we hear from the Kremlin, from authoritarians that don't like us. And we've dealt with that by being very transparent. We cover governments, even governments that are friendly towards the U.S. just as tough as we cover the Kremlin.

Radio Free Europe was created and nurtured by legendary cold warriors, including diplomat George Kennan, CIA director Allen Dulles and Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

Bill Whitaker: This place, it oozes with, with history. Can you tell me about the driving force, the soul of this place?

Jamie Fly: Certainly for the journalists it's a commitment to the truth. We live right now in what, what some would call a post-truth age where people increasingly don't even believe in an objective truth. But this was an organization in the 1950s that was founded on the notion that there is an objective truth.

One truth the broadcasters still struggle with is the fact that they were originally funded by the CIA. Congress ended that affiliation in 1971, and mandated the radios operate without any U.S. government interference. But that hasn't stopped other governments from interfering with them.

The history of Radio Free Europe is filled with Cold War intrigue. The American broadcaster has been a perennial target of Soviet and later Russian spies. A number of deadly plots have been foiled, including one to poison saltshakers in the cafeteria.

Still, some high-profile journalists have been assassinated, including RFE host and Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was jabbed with a poisoned umbrella tip in London in 1978. The terrorist known as "Carlos the Jackal" bombed its Munich headquarters in 1981. All told, 18 Radio Free Europe journalists have been killed. Two are imprisoned in Belarus, one in Crimea.

  Pavel Butorin

Pavel Butorin runs RFE's 24/7 Russian-language television channel, Current Time. He told us viewership has soared since the invasion of Ukraine.

Bill Whitaker: How many viewers are you getting? 

Pavel Butorin: For TV alone, we report 6.2 million weekly views. But for digital platforms this year, we've reported 3 billion online views. 

Stickers posted throughout Russia that direct people to Current Time's website

He says many Russians watch their live YouTube feed in secret, using "virtual private networks." Recently, stickers started showing up in Russian cities. They appear to be ads for cheap sugar, but when you scan the barcodes…

Pavel Butorin: The QR code, those quick response codes took you to Current Time's website. Another one was, you know, IKEA sale. But the actual QR code took you to our YouTube channel. And we had nothing to do with that.

Former Radio Free Europe Director Mark Pomar explains new reality for broadcaster | 60 Minutes 02:26

In 2022, the Kremlin turned back the clock. It banned independent media outlets, forced RFE's Moscow bureau to shut down and made it illegal to call Russia's action in Ukraine a "war," with punishment up to 15 years in jail.

As anchor of Current Time's nightly newscast, Ksenia Sokolyanskaya flouts that law nearly every day. Born and raised in Moscow - she is essentially exiled here in Prague.

Bill Whitaker: Do you think you will be able to go home some day?

Ksenia Sokolyanskaya: I honestly don't know. 

Bill Whitaker: Really?

Ksenia Sokolyanskaya: There is a chance, you know, that me or any of my colleagues could be, you know, detained straight at the airport. I think there is a reason why almost every fair journalist left the country since the beginning of the war.

  Ksenia Sokolyanskaya

Bill Whitaker: Can you explain to those of us from outside of the country, what's happening in Russia?

Ksenia Sokolyanskaya: I think that things are moving in a very scary direction. I'm sure that this war brings disastrous consequence, not only for Ukraine and Ukrainian, but for Russia and Russians.

A million Russian citizens have fled the country in the past year and a half, including these four 

Radio Free Europe journalists who – until recently – worked in its Moscow bureau.

Sergei Dobrynin: Journalists are fatalists, I think, especially Russian journalists.

Bill Whitaker: "Fatalists."

Sergei Dobrynin: Fatalists, yes.

  Sergei Dobrynin

Sergei Dobrynin is an investigative reporter.

Bill Whitaker: Do all of you expect to return to Russia?

Sergei Dobrynin: Not before Putin dies, I think.

Bill Whitaker: It's home, though.

Sergei Dobrynin: Yes. I still consider Russia to be, to be "home." But to me, Russia is occupied by Putin, and also Russian people are occupied, many of them, by Russian propaganda. 

  Natalya Dzhanpoladova

Natalya Dzhanpoladova covers human rights.

Natalya Dzhanpoladova: When I came to RFE/RL I understood that this media gives you a chance to tell the truth, to cover your stories as you see it, as you want to present it. And there is no pressure of some guidelines from the government.

Anastasia Tishchenko is at odds with both her country, and her parents, who believe Russian propaganda. 

Anastasia Tishchenko: I try to send them my reports, but they still believe not to me, but, say, still believe to Russian television. They're afraid of truth.

Bill Whitaker: "Afraid" of the truth?

Anastasia Tishchenko: I guess. That's how propaganda works.

  Anastasia Tishchenko

Alexey Alexandrov did a stint inside Ukraine before leaving Russia.

Alexey Alexandrov: After the war begins, I decided that I would like to go back to Ukraine, not Russia. Because I feel responsible in a way for this war.

Bill Whitaker: What do you mean you feel responsible?

Alexey Alexandrov: As a part of Russian society. And probably I will like to go back to Ukraine to help the people in Ukraine to rebuild their country.

  Alexey Alexandrov

His Radio Free Europe colleagues inside Ukraine have been doing just that. Natalie Sedletska is host and executive producer of an investigative news series. Her reporting helped expose the corruption of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. Now she's uncovering bigger crimes. 

Natalie Sedletska: When the full-scale war started, me and my team, we found out that our investigative skills can really help now, in new reality. And we started to investigate Russian atrocities in Ukraine.

Bill Whitaker: You uncovered, you documented war crimes.

Natalie Sedletska: That's true. You've heard of Bucha, right? Unfortunately, there are dozens if not hundreds of such cities that suffered so much from Russian atrocities.

  Natalie Sedletska

Bucha was the site of the mass murder of Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops. Sedletska works in RFE's Kyiv bureau under constant threat of Russian missiles.

Natalie Sedletska: If you can imagine any tragedy, a mother lost her child. A child lost his mother and dad. Like, imagine all horrible things, they are going on now in my country. 

Bill Whitaker: And you've decided to stay?

Natalie Sedletska: Being a reporter in Ukraine it's our mission of course. So why I'm telling you these stories? Because I'm afraid of untold stories. I'm afraid that we will not be able to tell all the truths that is going on because so much is going on.

Produced by Graham Messick and Jack Weingart. Broadcast associates, Eliza Costas and Natalie Breitkopf. Edited by Matthew Lev.

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