U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors Silenced Voice of America Radio in Ukraine One Day Before Russia Halted Gas Supplies to Europe
FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, January 7, 2009, San Francisco — In yet another show of incredibly poor judgement combined with bad timing and ulterior bureaucratic motives resulting in a major waste of U.S. tax dollars, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan body responsible for U.S. international broadcasts, had silenced Voice of America (VOA) radio programs to Ukraine one day before Russia halted natural gas deliveries to Europe. In a similar move just a few months earlier, the BBG had terminated VOA radio programs to Russia and had stopped VOA Hindi radio to India shortly before the recent deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
As a major energy and political crisis was about to hit Eastern and Western Europe, the last Voice of America Ukrainian radio program aired on December 31. The BBG was aware of the Kremlin’s threat to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine as of January 1, 2009 but decided to eliminate the VOA Ukranian program anyway and leave the Obama Administration with another fait accompli.
Listen to the last Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcast to Ukraine. These radio programs were eliminated by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) on Dec. 31, 2008, one day before Russia halted natural gas deliveries to Ukraine and Western Europe, precipitating a major crisis. Earlier, the BBG had eliminated VOA radio to Russia 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia and took VOA Hindi programs off the air shortly before the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. The BBG also wanted to reduce radio programs to Tibet, also shortly before major pro-independence demonstrations in the region, which were brutally suppressed by the Chinese authorities.
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In July 2008, the BBG had halted Voice of America radio programs to Russia just 12 days before the Russian military forces attacked Georgia. The former BBG chairman, neoconservative Republican James K. Glassman, who now serves as the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, ignored urgent requests from the Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) who on behalf of the Senate Appropriations Committee had directed the BBG not to terminate broadcasts to Russia and other countries without free media.
Glassman formed an alliance with the BBG’s liberal Democratic members, including Edward E. Kaufman and D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, who were equally eager to dismantle Voice of America radio programs to Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine in order to bolster privatized broadcasting by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which is based in Prague and Moscow. The closing down of VOA Russian radio was implemented by the BBG executive director Jeffrey Trimble, a former RFE/RL acting president, who worked closely with Glassman, Kaufman and Hirschberg and reportedly received advice from Senator Biden’s staff. Only one BBG member was reported to have voted against cutting VOA radio programs.
BBG officials claim that VOA Ukrainian TV programs and the VOA Ukrainian web site, which have not been eliminated, are sufficient to present American news and opinions. They made the same claim with regard to Russia even though many people in the region, especially in the conflict areas, do not have access to the Internet. There is also overwhelming evidence of the ability of the Russian security services to block and sabotage Western news and human rights web sites.
The most recent BBG chairman, James K. Glassman, however, is well known for his boundless enthusiasm for the Internet and pro-democracy online video contests, which he describes as Public Diplomacy 2.0. He is equally enthusiastic about the use of private consultants to carry out U.S. government operations, including public diplomacy, and several years ago he co-authored a book “DOW 36,000,” predicting that the U.S. stock market would be at that level by now. Glassman ignored warnings from both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill who urged him not to discontinue Voice of America radio broadcasts. U.S. lawmakers were especially concerned about countries without free media and countries subject to pressure from aggressive neighbors and vulnerable to attacks from terrorist groups.
Another former BBG member, Senator Kaufman (D-DE), who had previously served as Senator Biden’s chief of staff and was appointed to replace him in the U.S. Senate, has been a strong supporter of steering money to RFE/RL, which is incorporated in Delaware. Both Kaufman and Vice President elect Biden were supporters of the Bush Administration’s Middle East broadcasting policy focused on marginalizing the Voice of America and using privatized entities and private consultants rather than U.S. government employees.
Despite the BBG’s bipartisan structure, moving forward with the privatization of US international broadcasting has been part of the strategy of the Board’s Democratic members and their neoconservative Republican colleagues ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The BBG has enthusiastically embraced the Bush Administration’s plan to outsource broadcasting to private entities, many of them based overseas. Their strategy also called for the elimination of Voice of America services based in Washington, D.C. These VOA broadcasting services provided more balanced news with an American perspective and were subject to much stricter editorial and fiscal controls than the new privatized stations.
Acting on advice of the BBG’s most prominent former Democratic member Norman Pattiz, founder of the now seriously ailing U.S. radio syndicate Westwood One, and with strong encouragement from the White House and the Vice President Cheney’s office, the bipartisan Board shut down VOA’s highly-respected Arabic radio service and created two privatized Middle East broadcasting entities, Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television. Both are increasingly viewed by U.S. diplomats, foreign policy experts and NGOs as a major propaganda blunder, contributing to the growth of anti-Americanism rather than improving U.S. image in the region.
Privatized broadcasting entities managed by the BBG have been plagued with financial and editorial scandals. The nonprofit investigative journalism web site ProPublica.org has uncovered major financial irregularities at Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television and reported on the lack of editorial controls that have resulted in giving airtime to Ismalist extremists and Holocaust deniers. A study prepared by the Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, University of Southern California, which was commissioned by the U.S. government, concluded that Alhurra, Arab-language television to the Middle East managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) fails to meet basic journalistic standards and is seen by few.
The BBG’s privatized corporate structure looks very similar to the General Motor’s panoply of automotive brands, but — except for the rapidly disappearing Voice of America — it does not offer any sign of representing the United States. As with the ailing U.S. automotive firms, the structure created by the BBG includes multiple and duplicate executive positions. It offers BBG members, their staff, contractors and employees of the privatized entities plenty of opportunities for international travel at taxpayers’ expense between Washington and such desirable overseas locations as Prague, Dubai, and Hong Kong.
In a major waste of taxpayer resources, the BBG spends millions of dollars on separate office facilities for each station, even in Washington, D.C. Ted Lipien, president of media freedom nonprofit FreeMediaOnline.org, whose reporting on the Holocaust deniers conference in Teheran led to the investigations of Alhurra Television’s programming, suggested that another investigation, this time of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ management practices, should become a priority for Nancy Killefer, President Elect Barack Obama’s appointee as the White House Chief Performance Officer.
The Public Diplomacy Council, a nonprofit organization which includes former diplomats, academics and other foreign policy experts, has also called on President Elect Obama and Congress to take urgent action in reforming publicly-funded U.S. international broadcasting. The PDC is proposing consolidation of all five broadcast entities into a single international network. The PDC believes that the proposed consolidation and replacing the Broadcasting Board of Governors by a new nonpartisan oversight commission would result in “cost savings aimed at making U.S. global broadcasting unmatched on the airwaves and in cyberspace.”
There is also growing evidence of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s inability to carry out its journalistic mission in Russia and in other countries where free media is at risk. FreeMediaOnline.org has been reporting that as a result of strategic decisions made by the BBG, RFE/RL journalists based in Russia are subject to blackmail by the Kremlin’s secret police. The BBG not only ignored these warnings but also prevented VOA journalists based in the relative safety of Washington, D.C. to broadcast radio news to the war zone during the height of the Russian-Georgian conflict last summer. A Russian human rights organization has accused RFE/RL of giving extensive airtime to an extremist Russian politician known for making racist comments about Jews, Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities.
FreeMediaOnline.org president Ted Lipien has urged the Obama transition team to restore Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia and Ukraine. Lipien said that VOA journalists should be allowed to serve as a credible voice of the American people and be able to give overseas audiences a responsible, accurate and objective view of American values and the goals of the new Obama Administration. Otherwise, radio and TV audiences in the Middle East may think that the U.S. agrees with Holocaust deniers and Russians may believe that Americans, who have elected the first African-American U.S. president, are happy to pay for giving airtime to racist Russian politicians on a U.S. taxpayer-funded radio station, Lipien said.
FreeMediaOnline.org has launched a Russian-language web site — GovoritAmerika.us ГоворитАмерика.us — which includes summaries of more serious news and commentaries from multiple U.S. government and nongovernment sources. According to Ted Lipien, the web site is designed to compensate for the loss of information from the United States for Russian-speaking audiences due to program and budget cuts implemented by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The web site, which includes links to VOA Russian Service news reports, is also designed to counter the BBG marketing strategy, first introduced by former BBG member Norman Pattiz. The marketing approach imposed by the BBG and its private consultants has forced broadcasting entities to focus on entertainment programming and to avoid hard-hitting political reporting that might prevent local rebroadcasting or offend local officials. GovoritAmerika.us web site was developed without any public or private funding and is managed by volunteers. It is also hosted on LiveJournal.com.