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Broadcasting Board of Governors Staff Still Works Hard to Make Voice of America Radio Unavailable in Russia and Ukraine but VOA is Fighting Back

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, September 22, 2008, San Francisco – The Broadcasting Board of Governors staff led by the BBG executive director Jeff Trimble touts its new program delivery strategy for the Voice of America in Russia as a “New Media” solution using the Internet. Their hidden objective, however, has been to eliminate VOA Russian radio not only from the still available AM frequency leased in Moscow (810kHz) but to eliminate VOA radio production in Russian entirely, even from the Web. So far, they have been successful. They  are causing tremendous harm to U.S. public diplomacy abroad and wasting American taxpayers’ money, but at least for now they have achieved their bureaucratic goal of silencing VOA radio in Russia.  

Since July 26, there is no longer any VOA Russian radio program that the U.S. government could put on the AM frequency in Moscow, on shortwave, or even on the Web.  Yet, the VOA Russian Service still employs the same number of radio broadcasters as it did before Mr. Trimble came to the BBG from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), where he was the station’s acting president. And the American taxpayers still pay for the AM frequency in Moscow and the salaries of the now underemployed VOA  Russian staffers.

The Russian government may very well soon decide to take away all AM Moscow frequencies from Western international broadcasters, including BBC, DW, RFE/RL, RFI, and VOA. If that happens, the Voice of America would still be unable to reach radio listeners in Russia with any substantive radio programming either on shortwave or on the Web unless the current policy formulated by the BBG staff is rejected as dangerous and wasteful and replaced with policies designed to promote media freedom.

But taking away Russian radio programming from VOA is exactly what the BBG executive director wanted to accomplish despite strong opposition in the U.S. Congress. What the BBG members who relied on his advice did not know was that Russia would launch a military attack on Georgia just 12 days after they took VOA Russian radio programs off the air. They also agreed to end VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine. Only one BBG member was said to have voted against this plan.

Jeff Trimble’s ultimate objective was to secure the position of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as the only U.S.-funded Russian-language radio station. He was determined to carry out his plan despite serious concerns voiced by media freedom and human rights organizations that RFE/RL staff in Russia is being intimidated by the Kremlin’s secret police and gives extensive airtime to racist politicians who verbally attack immigrants and ethnic minorities. It would be interesting to know whether the Board’s chief advisor shared these concerns with the BBG members, but such information is difficult to come by since the BBG likes to conduct its meetings in great secrecy.

As of now, the BBG executive director is still the most incredible winner by any Washington standards of bureaucratic maneuvering. He managed to eliminate VOA radio broadcasts from Washington to one of the most important world powers despite the overwhelming opposition to this move among the members of Congress of both parties. He received help, however, from the Senate staff of Senator Joe Biden because the semi-private Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is incorporated in Delaware and Senator Biden’s former chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, serves on the Broadcasting Board of Governors in addition to helping the senator with his vice presidential campaign.

The victims of this incredible bureaucratic cabal are the Russian people, U.S. public diplomacy, the U.S. taxpayers, the U.S. Congress,  VOA Russian broadcasters, and — ironically — the BBG members themselves who have been embarrassed by their decisions to terminate VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine. These decisions were made on the basis of political and media analysis from the BBG staff just as Mr. Putin was deciding to combine his suppression of media freedom at home with a military adventure abroad.  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is based in Prague and Moscow, has also suffered because of the cover up of its serious security and programming problems in Russia that require immediate attention.

Screenshot of VOA Russian website showing only 10 min. of radio programming daily.One of the many casualties of the BBG policies in the VOA Russian Service is a distinguished broadcaster Inna Dubinsky. She had a successful hour-long radio program, on which she interviewed Russian human rights activists and American experts and accepted calls from listeners and radio stations from all over the former Soviet Union. The BBG cancelled her program  as part of the dismantling of VOA Russian radio broadcasts. The current VOA website shows only 10 minutes of daily radio interviews, some of which are still conducted by Ms. Dubinsky, but the link for listening to them does not work (Sept. 22, 2008). Ms. Dubinsky desperately wants to offer radio and Web listeners in Russia a complete listener-interactive program of discussion and political analysis but was told that the BBG staff considers such requests as “a non starter.” Of the regularly scheduled TV programs now listed on the VOA Russian website, some are also to be soon eliminated, leaving even more VOA Russian broadcasters underemployed and completely demoralized.

With the political and media landscape in Russia collapsing under Mr. Trimble’s feet after the Russian attack on Georgia, having VOA radio programs produced from the safety of Washington, D.C. by American-trained journalists who have a first-hand knowledge of U.S. foreign policy and American society is still too much of a  bureaucratic threat for the BBG executive director. But the Voice of America and its director Dan Austin may have started to fight back against Mr. Trimble’s influence over the BBG. FreeMediaOnline.org has learned that Dan Austin is asking the BBG to suspend the planned termination of VOA Ukrainian radio programs at least until December.

It’s hard to predict how the BBG staff will try to stop this request, but keeping VOA radio out of Russia appears far more important to the BBG executive director than VOA radio broadcasts to Ukraine. As of now, the VOA Russian Service staff is still prevented from resuming their full time work. They are in complete shock from the treatment they received from the  BBG staff and are rapidly losing hope that the Board will show some common sense and some appreciation of what is happening in Russia.

These Voice of America broadcasters based in the U.S. see no reason why they should not be allowed to produce radio programs that could be placed on the AM frequency in the Russian capital and broadcast over the Internet and on shortwave. They know that they can be more independent and show more journalistic courage than journalists who live and work in Russia under the watchful eye of Mr. Putin’s secret police. They feel that the BBG policy is especially appalling since the people in Russia are subjected to the ever increasing media censorship and nationalistic propaganda, which finds its way even onto the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts originating in Moscow and Prague. They don’t understand why their American radio programs in Russian should be silenced.

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