FreeMediaOnline.org, August 20, 2008, San Francisco — Listen to the last Voice of America radio broadcast to Russia The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) stopped these VOA broadcasts from Washington on July 26, 2008, 12 days before Russia attacked Georgia.
After Russia’s attack on Georgia, it took the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) days to say something about U.S. broadcasting to the war zone. Shortly before the attack and without any public announcement, the BBG stopped all VOA on air radio broadcasts to Russia. It also planned to close down VOA’s Georgian Service within weeks. Advised by its executive director Jeff Trimble, who before 2007 was an acting president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), BBG member Jeff Hirschberg, a Democrat who is a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, and with assistance from the staff of Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware) — the bipartisan BBG quietly terminated VOA Russian radio broadcasts on July 26 and proceeded with its plan to make RFE/RL the primary radio voice of the American people to audiences in Russia. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, only one BBG member, radio broadcaster Blanquita Cullum, a Republican, spoke out strongly against the cuts. Russia attacked Georgia on August 8.
On Tuesday, the BBG said that it had “approved continuation of VOA Georgian surge broadcasts for the foreseeable future” — not “indefinitely,” which would have been a proper term to use if the BBG wanted to send a strong message to former President, now Prime Minister Putin and assure VOA Georgian broadcasters that their work is valued and should continue. The press release, drafted by the BBG staff, reminded instead VOA Georgian broadcasters that all BBG broadcasting to Georgia was to be done by RFE/RL after September 30, 2008. There was not a single word of thanks for their heroic efforts to keep VOA broadcasts on the air. Reduced by the BBG cuts to only a four-person team, they have fought exhaustion, working without any days off since the crisis started.
The BBG is a bipartisan entity charged with overseeing U.S. taxpayer-funded international broadcasts. As such, it controls the allocation of resources between broadcasting services, such as VOA, RFE/RL, and Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa for the Middle East, as well as requests for funding amounts.
The BBG was ready to cut VOA broadcasts to Russia, Georgia and several other media-at-risk countries despite warnings from many members of Congress, other than Senator Biden, and from media freedom organizations, that this would be an ill-advised and dangerous move, considering Mr. Putin’s successful campaign to silence independent media voices in Russia. Senator Patrick Leahy specifically warned the BBG not to stop Voice of America broadcasts to Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tibet and to the Balkans, “where freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary.”
FreeMediaOnline.org has learned, however, that Senator Biden’s staff had told the BBG staff it would be safe to stop VOA Russian broadcasts and beef up Prague and Moscow-based RFE/RL. RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s and Mr. Hirschberg’s home state, while Jeff Trimble has for years been trying to preserve the future of the semi-private RFE/RL, his former employer, at the expense of the Congressionally chartered Voice of America. Still, to avoid any bad publicity, the BBG staff suggested that the decision be carried out without any public announcement from the BBG or VOA, and set the termination date for late July, when most members of Congress are away from Washington. Voice of America director Dan Austin carried out the BBG order. Previous VOA directors who had opposed BBG directives were either fired or had to resign.
RFE/RL has a splendid record of reporting uncensored news, but much of its past effectiveness has been destroyed by the BBG, ironically by wasting millions of taxpayers money to beef up its vast administrative and reporting operation in Russia within close reach of Mr. Putin’s secret police. The BBG also forced RFE/RL journalists in Prague to adopt a more Russia-patriotic and less political tone to appeal to a Russian audience and increase ratings. This process was started by a former BBG member Norman Pattiz, a Democrat, founder and chairman of Westwood One radio empire. Pattiz’s orders were carried out by media consultants with business links in Russia who were hired based on his recommendations. This process of placing ratings ahead of content still continues and helps authoritarian leaders like Mr. Putin undermine media freedom at home and weaken the impact of U.S. international broadcasting.
Mr. Pattiz, who served on the Broadcasting Board of Governors from May 2000 to March 2006, was also responsible for extensive use of music and entertainment programming, and accordingly high pricetags, at Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, during his tenure at the BBG he tried to close down as many Voice of America services as possible to pay for his pet projects.
The more successful Mr. Putin and other authoritarian leaders were in threatening affiliate stations carrying VOA and RFE/RL programs, with the subsequent drop in ratings for both, the easier it was for BBG members like Mr. Pattiz to demand closing down of VOA radio and TV services under the excuse that their ratings were down. The BBG did nothing to help VOA improve its programs and program delivery, which would have been an appropriate response to the growing press censorship. On the contrary, as repression in Russia and in former Soviet republics increased, the BBG reduced VOA airtime, took away frequencies, and cut budgets. Ironically, VOA’s combined radio and TV ratings in Russia have been higher than RFE/RL’s, and the difference between the two in radio ratings was not statistically significant, even though RFE/RL spent much more money on radio and had many more broadcast hours than VOA.
The change in approach to international broadcasting, initiated by Mr. Pattiz and largely supported by a former BBG chairman, Ken Tomlinson, a Republican, have had a profound effect on journalism at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. RFE/RL’s new president Jeff Gedmin, a neo-conservative Republican, has tried to reverse this process to some degree after Jeff Trimble had left Prague in 2007 and moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the BBG.
The damage to RFE/RL, however, had already been done. A Moscow-based human rights organization has recently criticized Radio Liberty for giving “air time to racists and ‘ultra-right’ extremists.”
Mostly U.S.-based, Voice of America journalists, whose journalistic independence and standards are protected and set by the Congressionally-approved VOA Charter, are seen as more careful and more responsible, although sometimes more resistant to desirable changes in technology and protected from being fired by political appointees. The BBG, however, still favors the privatized broadcasting entities, such as RFE/RL and Alhurra, despite many scandals. Investigative journalists at ProPublica.org, a non-profit led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, reported, for example, that a guest invited to participate in an Alhurra program had called for killings of American soldiers in Iraq.
FreeMediaOnline.org reported that in October 2006, shortly after the murder of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian Service managers insisted that the Kremlin will allow them to report and broadcast in Russia despite President Putin’s’ crackdown on the local independent media and international broadcasters. RFE/RL Moscow bureau chief, Elena Glushkova, said in an on-air Radio Liberty discussion that her optimism was based on her belief in the common sense of the current Russian leadership. Maria Klain, Radio Liberty Russian Service director at the RFE/RL home office in Prague, also expressed confidence that Radio Liberty’s future in Russia looks good. Many members of Congress and numerous foreign policy and human rights experts have since expressed alarm at increasing repression by the Russian government.
The BBG members supporting cuts are Joaquin Balaya, chairman of Balaya Media Inc.; Jeff Hirschberg, a partner of in Kalorama Partners, a consulting firm that deals with corporate governance and risk assessment; Edward E. Kaufman, president of Public Strategies, a political and management consulting firm based in Wilmington, Delaware; and Steven J. Simmons, chairman and CEO of Patriot Media and Communications, LLC. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice serves as an ex officio member.
Three seats on the board currently are empty, after the recent departure of former Board Chairman James K. Glassman, who also favored program cuts at VOA. Glassman is now the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
BBG members also put a high priority on themselves. They want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their own public relations operation and to hire a U.S. media celebrity to speak on their behalf. They have been travelling to Prague every year, stay at five-star hotels, and are entertained by RFE/RL with lavish dinners at U.S. taxpayers’ expense. Washington-based VOA, which is run by Federal government employees and is subject to strict government controls, cannot compete with RFE/RL in terms of a desirable foreign destination or lavish hotel accommodations and entertainment. U.S. taxpayers are also paying tens of millions of dollars to build new headquarters for RFE/RL in Prague. Despite the high pricetag, the U.S. government will not own the building.
Trimble and Hirschberg have also made frequent trips to Moscow, where they negotiate with Russian officials and businessmen who claim to have close links to Mr. Putin. Incredibly, in 2005 Mr. Hirschberg assured the BBG after one of his visits to Moscow that Mr. Putin would not close down any more Russian stations rebroadcasting Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news programs and that he would not interfere with the work of RFE/RL’s large Moscow bureau, which incidentally costs U.S. taxpayers each year millions of dollars. This was exactly what the agents of the Russian secret police did shortly after Mr. Hirschberg gave his assurances. Still, the BBG again listened to the advice from Mr. Hirschberg and Mr. Trimble and has moved all U.S.-funded on-air Russian radio broadcasts from Washington, D.C. to Prague and Moscow, putting American taxpayers-funded broadcasting resources much closer to the FSB, the security service responsible for carrying out Mr. Putin’s orders to destroy independent broadcast media in Russia.
FreeMediaOnline.org has warned the BBG that RFE/RL managers and reporters working and living in Russia as Russian citizens are open to intimidation and recruitment by Mr. Putin’s secret police. Knowing Mr. Putin’s record of silencing independent media in Russia, sabotaging of Internet sites, and using the FSB, the KGB’s successor agency and Mr. Putin’s old employer, to intimidate and shut down TV and radio stations, the BBG actions harm media freedom and pose a serious risk to U.S. national security, FreeMediaOnline.org concluded.
We recommended that RFE/RL bureau in Moscow should be greatly reduced in size and expense, and most American news and opinions should be reported by the Voice of America journalists based in Washington, with RFE/RL providing only truly surrogate and uncompromised reporting from Russia. RFE/RL’s reporting assignments in Russia should be dispersed among independent journalists working from home, making it more difficult for the secret police to monitor and control their news operations. Even then, the BBG and RFE/RL management would not know who among their staff in Russia might be targeted by the FSB for intimidation and recruitment. The usual FSB practice in these cases is to tell their victims that as Russian citizens they will be prosecuted for revealing state secrets if they tell anyone about any of their contacts with the secret police.
RFE/RL president Jeff Gedmin claims that his reporters in Russia are engaged in “surrogate broadcasting”, but surrogate broadcasting as it was known during the Cold War meant that RFE/RL journalists, who lived in the West, were not exposed to threats and pressures from a repressive regime. In case of a serious crisis in U.S.-Russian relations, the Russian secret police would be able to shut down RFE/RL Moscow bureau and its network of reporters within minutes or use it to spread disinformation.
The BBG issued its announcement on U.S. broadcasts to Georgia shortly after FreeMediaOnline.org sent out a press release to U.S. and international media calling for keeping Voice of America Georgian broadcasts on the air indefinitely and immediately restoring VOA Russian radio. Link to a partial list of media which carried FreeMediaOnline.org press release.
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ALL AMERICANS SHOULD BE CONCERNED THAT THEIR RESOURCES TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE IN TIMES OF CRISIS HAVE BEEN PLACED WITHIN CLOSE REACH OF MR. PUTIN’S SECRET POLICE
This post was written by FreeMediaOnline.org president Ted Lipien. He was an acting associate VOA director until 2006. Earlier, he had been in charge of VOA broadcasts to Poland and managed broadcasting to Russia and other countries in Eurasia. He was also responsible for placing VOA, RFE/RL and other BBG-funded programs on local radio stations in Russia, Georgia, Afganistan, Bosnia, Iraq, and many other media-at-risk countries. In his recently published book on Pope John Paul II and feminism, he describes Polish secret police and KGB attempts to place spies at the Vatican and to influence broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America.