FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, May 11, 2009, San Francisco — The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency responsible for managing U.S. international broadcasts made a number of misleading statements in its Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Request to the U.S. Congress. The BBG repeatedly states that the Voice of America (VOA) Russian service responded with “comprehensive coverage” to the Russian military incursion into Georgia in August 2009. In fact, just 12 days before the Russian-Georgian conflict erupted, the BBG terminated all VOA Russian radio programs. The following is a quote from the BBG’s Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Request.
VOA Responds to Crisis in Georgia
On August 8, 2008, Russia’s military forces in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia began invading Georgian territory and moving toward its capital, Tbilisi. In response to the crisis, VOA increased its daily Georgian radio broadcasts from 30 to 60 minutes on shortwave and FM. VOA’s broadcast is also available live and on-demand on VOA Georgian’s website. VOA’s Russian Service also provided comprehensive coverage of Russia-Georgia conflict.
Even after the crisis started, former BBG members, Edward E. Kaufman (now a Democratic senator from Delaware) and James K. Glassman (former BBG chairman who was also President Bush’s Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy) rejected urgent pleas from Voice of America journalists to resume VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts to Russia and to the war zone in Georgia. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, Mr. Kaufman blocked a formal request from another BBG member Blanquita Walsh Cullum ( a Republican appointee and the only working journalist serving on the board) to have a new vote on resuming VOA Russian radio programs.
In another part of the budget request, the BBG admits that the Russian service “ceased its radio broadcasts on July 26, 2008,” and “is enhancing its website to appeal to burgeoning web audiences with targeted content.” The document fails to point out that largely as a result of ending VOA Russian radio and television programs, VOA’s annual reach in Russia dropped by 98% from 7.3% in 2007 to 0.2% (est.) in 2009 (another omission). No other international broadcaster, U.S. or foreign, has ever experienced a similarly dramatic fall in ratings. Even a 25% drop would have been a disaster, yet the BBG claims that despite a 98% audience loss VOA “improved its programming to such strategically important countries as… Russia.”
While advocating Internet-only strategy for Voice of America in Russia — rather than far more prudent and far more effective multiple platform program delivery — the BBG admits in another part of its budget request that the Internet is vulnerable to blockage and censorship by unfriendly governments, ”Governments also target RFE/RL [a BBG-run private broadcaster] with technological disruption, including a global cyber attack in April 2008 which probably originated in Belarus, and Kazakhstan’s blockage of RFE/RL’s Kazakh-language website in the spring of 2008.” Another cyber attack, this time against Georgian websites, occurred during the Russian military intervention in Georgia. A recent article by Understanding Government, “Will America’s Voice Stay Silenced?“, reported on this issue and other problems at the BBG.
The BBG’s budget request also states that “in response to the crisis, VOA increased its daily Georgian radio broadcasts from 30 to 60 minutes on shortwave and FM.” That statement is only technically correct. What the BBG does not mention is that the broadcasting board also had plans to eliminate all VOA radio programs to Georgia and that the VOA Georgian service was reduced to a handful of journalists who were not able to immediately increase airtime and had to work nonstop for many days just to produce a 30 minute radio program.
The BBG budget request to the U.S. Congress also includes another disingenuous and misleading statement:
VOA Covers Mumbai Terrorist Attacks
VOA’s South Asia Division language services provided wall-to-wall coverage of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, including on-the-ground coverage from stringers, interviews in Pakistan and India, and live call-in shows. VOA Hindi provided its new affiliate Zee TV with reaction from President Bush, President-elect Obama, U.S. officials, experts and members of American-Indian communities.
In fact, shorty before the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the BBG terminated all Voice of America radio broadcasts in Hindi. While bragging and misleading the Congress about its response to the terrorist attacks in India, in another part of the budget request the BBG frankly admits that it plans to close down VOA Hindi service altogether:
BBG proposes to end VOA broadcasts in Croatian, Hindi, and Greek, and discontinue radio rebroadcasts of PNN television programming and one hour daily of original VOA Persian radio.
Another misleading omission in the BBG’s FY 2010 budget request deals with VOA broadcasts to Ukraine:
Ukrainian Language Broadcasting
VOA’s Ukrainian Service continues to have a major impact through its television programming. An October 2008 survey indicated that VOA Ukrainian’s weekly TV programs reach 11.9 percent of the population and that the combined weekly TV, radio, and Internet audience is 14.2 percent (5.7 million people).
In fact, the BBG terminated all VOA radio broadcasts to Ukraine on December 31, 2008, a day before Russia cut off deliveries of natural gas to Ukraine and Western Europe in a billing dispute with Kiev, as it had earlier terminated VOA radio to Russia. Yet the BBG describes both Russia and Ukraine as “strategically important countries” for VOA broadcasting and in another part of the FY 2010 budget request says that “Russia has effectively turned into a one-party dictatorship in the past few years.”
The Broadcasting Board of Governor ignored numerous requests from members of Congress not to end VOA radio programming to media-at-risk countries like Russia and Ukraine. The BBG also ignored requests from members of Congress not to end VOA radio programs in Hindi.
According to the BBG’s critics, including BBG employees and their union leaders, misleading and disingenuous statements in the FY 2010 budget request reflect a culture of mismanagement and arrogance that was captured in the OPM’s most recent Human Capital Survey designed to measure employee job satisfaction and confidence in the management. This is what the AFGE Local 1812 government employees union website says about the quality of the management at the Broadcasting Board of Governors:
DATELINE: Washington, D.C., 01/23/09. AFGE Local 1812 has obtained a copy of the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) ranking of government agencies which included the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) based on the results of the 2008 Human Capital Resources survey. The BBG ranked dead last on three of the four categories the OPM measures in its survey. Finishing second to last in one category prevented an atrocious clean sweep of the four categories measuring the effectiveness of management at the BBG.
The BBG’s management problems are not limited only to federal government workers at the Voice of America working in Washington, D.C. but extend to other BBG-managed U.S.-funded broadcasting entities throughout the world. Foreign journalists working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a private broadcaster also supervised by the BBG, accuse the management of depriving them, based on national origin, of the same job security and labor protection rights which are available to both American and Czech employees. RFE/RL headquarters are based in Prague, the Czech Republic. RFE/RL’s former acting president, Jeffrey Trimble, is now the BBG’s executive director and was responsible for implementing personnel and other management decisions during the period covered by the Human Capital Survey. He was replaced at RFE/RL in Prague by another BBG-selected official, Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin, a former resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists-at-risk are a group of the most vulnerable contract employees from countries like Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Afghanistan, Iran and several others. These journalists charge that by taking advantage of the communist era laws still on the books in the Czech Republic, the BBG has restricted their right to challenge unlawful discrimination and employment termination in Czech and U.S. courts.
Two former RFE/RL employees plan to pursue their claims against RFE/RL and the BBG by challenging the communist era Czech laws in the European Court of Human Rights. They have also petitioned United States Attorney General Eric Holder to open a criminal investigation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and its supervising Federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
On May 6, the Czech news agency, CTK, and the largest Czech national daily Dnes (Today) reported that the two petitioners, former RFE/RL employees, a Croatian citizen Snjezana Pelivan and Anna Karapetian, an Armenian journalist, are charging BBG and the management of U.S. Congress-funded radio station with fraudulent deception intended to keep RFE/RL foreign personnel in a legal vacuum without court protection in the United States and the Czech Republic.
The BBG has also been severely criticized for imposing its programming and marketing strategy on journalists and forcing them to follow recommendations from uninformed consultants, some of them with links to BBG members, rather than allowing journalists and managers to use their own expert knowledge of the audience. In an interview scheduled for publication this week, former head of RFE/RL Russian Service, Mario Corti, who was forced out in a programming dispute four years ago, charges that the BBG’s strategy and the American management of the station have destroyed the unique value of Radio Liberty broadcasts in Russia and made them nearly ineffective. Corti is now a manager at a private radio network in Russia. Since his departure, RFE/RL has been criticized by a Russian human rights organization for giving airtime to nationalist extremists known for promoting racist views and its Moscow-based bureau chief was downplaying the impact of the murder of a prominent human rights reporter Anna Politkovskaya.
But one of the most severely criticized BBG operations has been the Alhurra Television program for the Middle East. According to KEBABfest blog, maintained by Arab-Americans, Alhurra viewers are subjected to “hours of mindless chatter interspersed with shallow assessments of selected current events and random feature stories (some of which are marginally entertaining). There is no depth in the news coverage, nor in the rest of the programming. Rather, there is a failed attempt at fast-paced US-style news that comes off as chaotic and incoherent.” Alhurra was also criticized for giving airtime to Holocaust deniers. A study by researchers for the University of Southern California, who conducted a review of Alhurra broadcasts, concluded that “the quality of Alhurra’s journalism is substandard on several levels“ and that the station has no significant audience in the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, the BBG is presenting Congress with a much rosier picture of Alhurra programming:
Expanding our reach.
The new three-hour daily show Al Youm launched on March 8, 2009 has redefined Alhurra’s voice in the region with an information mix unique in the Middle East today. The new show provides a platform for focusing on the news of the day, discussing compelling social issues, and a spectrum of information not presented anywhere else in the region’s media. The program broadcasts reports directly from the Middle East with hubs in Dubai, Beirut, Cairo, and Jerusalem. The mix from the region and America will continue to capitalize on Alhurra’s ability to provide the people of the Middle East with unique insight into America that will inform their views and opinions of the region, the world, and the United States.
While the original concept for Alhurra’s surrogate broadcasting, based on outdated Cold War models, came from neoconservatives in the Bush White House, programming and marketing strategy for Alhurra, Radio Sawa and other U.S. broadcasting entities, which is still followed by the BBG, was introduced by former Democratic BBG member Norman Pattiz, founder of U.S. radio syndicate Westwood One and a protege of Vice President Joe Biden when he was a U.S. senator from Delaware.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors FY 2010 Budget Request to the U.S. Congress (link) provides for an interesting reading and is a good example of how government bureaucrats try to hide their mistakes and mismanagement of government resources while asking U.S. taxpayers for more money, said Ted Lipien, former VOA acting associate director, who is now president of FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit which supports independent journalism worldwide.
In response to the termination of VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, FreeMediaOnline.org has helped to launch a Russian-language news website, GovoritAmerika.us, which offers a wide selection of Russian-language news analysis from both U.S. government and nongovernment sources. GovoritAmerika.us is staffed by volunteers and receives no public funding.