FreeMediaOnline.org, San Francisco, August 27, 2008 — Senator Biden’s record of playing politics with U.S. international broadcasting gives credence to recent news reports that his Senate staff had a key role in stopping the Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Russia shortly before the Russian attack on Georgia. Despite strong opposition in Congress, the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors, which manages U.S. government-funded broadcasting for overseas audiences, ended VOA radio programs in Russian on July 26 and was about to shut down VOA broadcasts to Georgia when the war broke out. Only four (4) broadcasters were left in the VOA Georgian service when the Russian troops attacked on August 8th.
The BBG spokesperson denies that Senator Biden’s staff played any special role in supporting the elimination of VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, which was described by a media freedom nonprofit, FreeMediaOnline.org, as a foreign policy and public diplomacy blunder. In 2005, a CNN news report accused Senator Biden of playing politics with U.S. international broadcasting.
According to the BBG spokesperson, the cuts resulted from a careful analysis of audience ratings which show a declining international radio listenership in Russia. Current and former VOA employees have told FreeMediaOnline.org, however, that the BBG prefers to have all U.S. broadcasting to Russia done by the semi-private Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), based in Prague and Moscow. RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state. A BBG member, Edward K. Kaufman, was formerly Senator Biden’s chief of staff. The BBG’s current executive director, Jeff Trimble, formerly served as acting president of RFE/RL. Another Board member, Jeff Hirschberg, is a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council. He and Jeff Trimble conducted negotiations with Russian officials with links to former President Putin to keep open RFE/RL’s large bureau in Moscow.
A BBG source told FreeMediaOnline.org that the BBG sought and received from Senator Biden’s staff a go-ahead for Voice of America radio cuts not only to Russia and Georgia but also to Ukraine, Serbia, Macedonia, India, and for programs to Africa in Portuguese. The BBG spokesperson Tish King told FreeMediaOnline.org that Senator Biden’s office did not play a significant role, but she did not deny that there were exchanges with his staff on VOA program cuts.
The BBG spokesperson insists that Congress was “on board” with the cuts. But when the VOA employees’ union made a Freedom of Information request for any documents showing Congressional approval for the cuts, the BBG responded that ”the document(s) requested cannot be provided as it does not exist.” The BBG took VOA Russian radio off the air without any public announcement that could raise alerts in Congress.
FreeMediaOnline.org has learned that based on promises of support from Senator Biden’s office, the BBG decided to implement the cuts, despite warnings from many other members of Congress and human rights organizations that these cuts would harm U.S. public diplomacy and U.S. support for media freedom. FreeMediaOnline.org president, Ted Lipien, who had worked previously for the BBG as an acting VOA associate director and regional media marketing director, said that there is plenty of evidence that poor political judgment, politics and special bureaucratic interests – not audience ratings – played a primary role in the BBG’s decisions.
FreeMediaOnline.org president said that the BBG should be made to understand the practical and symbolic value for the United States to be able to broadcast directly from Washington under the Voice of America brand to conflict areas and countries such as Russia, where most of the broadcast media is under government control. The BBG should stop using “the false and dangerous logic, which says that since Mr. Putin was successful in closing down RFE/RL and VOA affiliates in Russia with the subsequent drop in radio audience ratings, he should be rewarded by shutting down of VOA Russian broadcasts,” Lipien said.
Lipien also said that the BBG is playing dangerous politics with U.S. international broadcasting by giving all radio resources to RFE/RL, whose managers and reporters in Russia face intimidation from the secret police and where journalists, who had criticized Mr. Putin, have been severely beaten up or killed by assailants who to this day remain unknown and at large. Ted Lipien’s recently published book about Pope John Paul II describes how the Polish communist secret police and the KGB used blackmail and recruited agents among journalists to spy on the pope and influence RFE/RL and VOA reporting during the Cold War.
Senator Biden and the BBG have been accused before of playing politics with U.S. international broadcasting. In 2005, Senator Biden held hostage the uncontroversial Bush Administration nomination of Dina Habib Powell as the State Department officer to be in charge of public diplomacy to improve U.S. relations with Muslims in the Middle East so that his billionaire backer Norman Pattiz, founder and chairman of Westwood One radio empire, could be reappointed to the BBG. Mr. Pattiz, who eventually resigned from the BBG in 2006, was the main force behind the creation of Radio Sawa music and information station and Alhurra Television for the Middle East. Mr. Pattiz supported cuts at VOA to pay for his initiatives, which since have been criticized for waste of taxpayers money and giving airtime to extremists calling for killings of American soldiers in Iraq.
Unlike VOA broadcasters most of whom are U.S. government employees, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Sawa, and Alhurra are staffed by U.S. based and foreign based contractors and reporters. The BBG maintains that programs outsourced to these private broadcasters are highly effective and enjoy high ratings, but a Moscow based human rights group has criticized recently Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for giving significant airtime to racist extremists in Russia.
Despite Mr. Putin’s repression aimed at independent media in Russia, key RFE/RL Russian managers have expressed confidence in the common sense of the current Russian leadership. Human rights activists criticized them for making these comments only days after the murder of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The Voice of America, which is guided by the Congressionally approved Charter, has been relatively free of such criticism.