FreeMediaOnline.org, San Francisco, August 21, 2008 — In a move seen as a foreign policy and public diplomacy blunder, in which the Senate staff of Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) is said to be involved, the Voice of America (VOA), an international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Government, stopped its radio programs to Russia just 12 days before Moscow launched its military attack on Georgia. According to a source within the bipartisan but Bush-appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages VOA and other government sponsored U.S. broadcasting, Senator Biden’s staff has successfully worked behind the scenes with the BBG to kill VOA Russian radio broadcasts and almost succeeded in closing down VOA radio service to Georgia.
When Russia attacked Georgia on August 8, VOA Russian radio programs were already off the air. Since then, the BBG is said to have dismissed urgent pleas from VOA journalists to resume these broadcasts in response to the war as “a non-starter.” Because of the BBG-ordered cuts, only four (4) broadcasters remained at the VOA Georgian service to respond to the crisis. They have been working without hardly any days off since the invasion on a one-hour daily broadcast.
After several days of complete public silence as the Russian military action in Georgia continued, the BBG issued a statement on Tuesday agreeing to let the VOA Georgian staff broadcast “for the foreseeable future.” Rather than using the term “indefinitely,” which would have been more appropriate if the BBG wanted to send a strong message to former President, now Prime Minister Putin, the BBG press release instead reminded VOA Georgian broadcasters that all BBG broadcasting to Georgia was to be done by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a privatized BBG-run entity, after September 30, 2008. The press release offered no words of thanks for their hard work.
The Senate staff of Senator Biden, who primarily because of his strong foreign policy experience is reported to be one of the top candidates to become Senator Obama’s vice-presidential running mate, is said to have told the BBG staff that it would be safe to terminate VOA broadcasts to Russia and to say that the Congress was “on board” with this decision. The “on board” term was used by BBG spokesperson Tish King, as reported by ProPublica.org, a non-profit engaged in investigative journalism. Most members of Congress, both Democrats, and Republicans, however, have been strongly opposed to the BBG-proposed radio and television programming cuts.
The BBG staff, headed by Jeff Trimble, a former acting president of RFE/RL, apparently wanted to terminate Voice of America radio to Russia as quickly as possible to avoid being stopped by any new action in Congress, which had previously reversed similar cuts sought by the BBG and the Bush Administration. The BBG wants Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based in Prague, with much of its Russian broadcasting originating in Moscow, to become the only on-air radio voice of the American people in the Russian language, with VOA being reduced to producing a website. The website has no significant number of users in Russia and, in a crisis, can be easily blocked by Russian security services.
Critics of the BBG, including Ted Lipien, a former VOA journalist who is now president of media freedom non-profit FreeMediaOnline.org, pointed out that Moscow-based RFE/RL broadcasters, most of whom are Russian citizens living in Russia, have been accused by a local human rights organization of giving airtime to racists and ‘ultra-right’ extremists. Lipien also said that it was “an act of complete foolishness to place significant U.S. broadcasting resources within easy reach of Prime Minister Putin’s secret police and intelligence services. The Russian leader had used the secret police to destroy independent media in Russia.” Lipien warned that RFE/RL journalists in Russia are open to “similar intimidation and their broadcasts can be quickly shut down by the secret police or worse.”
Shortly after the murder in Russia of independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, the head of the RFE/RL Moscow bureau, Elena Glushkova, said in an on-air discussion that she believes in the common sense of the current Russian leadership. Maria Klain, Russian Service director at the RFE/RL home office in Prague, also expressed confidence that RFE/RL’s future in Russia looks good. Many members of Congress and numerous foreign policy and human rights experts have since expressed alarm at the increasing repression by the Russian government. Lipien has recently published a book in which he describes how the Polish communist secret police and the KGB tried to infiltrate spies into the Vatican to report on Pope John Paul II and how both intelligence agencies tried to undermine the work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America journalists.
The extent of Senator Biden’s direct personal involvement in the discussions with the BBG staff has not yet been determined, but he has been for many years a strong supporter of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware, his home state. His former chief of staff, Edward E. Kaufman, is now one of the BBG members who are in favor of reducing Voice of America programs to boost broadcasting by semi-private entities, such as RFE/RL and the Middle Eastern Alhurra Television. The latter has been accused by critics of giving airtime to extremists who have called for killing of American soldiers in Iraq.
Another BBG member who strongly favors giving VOA radio mission to RFE/RL is Jeff Hirschberg, also a Democrat, who is a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council. Of the six current BBG members, only one Republican member, radio host Blaquita Cullum, is said to have spoken strongly against program cuts to Russia, Tibet, and other media at-risk countries.
The VOA employees’ union has accused the BBG of spending money on itself while U.S. international broadcasting is being privatized and given away to scandal-ridden contractors. BBG members, their support staff, and members of Senator Biden’s office have made frequent trips to Prague, where they are hosted by RFE/RL, which is not subject to the same strict programming or financial controls on entertainment as the Federally-run Voice of America based in Washington, D.C.
Some current and former VOA staffers, including those who said they are Obama supporters, have expressed fear that if Senator Biden is selected as Obama’s running mate and the Democratic ticket wins in November, Biden would support the dismantling of the Voice of America in favor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They also fear that he might bring back Norman Pattiz, a former BBG member and founder and chairman of Westwood One radio empire, also a Democrat. Pattiz was the primary force behind Alhurra Television, and Radio Sawa to the Middle East with its Britney Spears-type music format, and was reported to have supported closing down as many VOA services as possible to pay for these initiatives.
Senator Biden’s staff is said to have assisted Jeff Trimble in carrying out the wishes of the Board members, but in an apparent effort to keep the news of the termination of Voice of America Russian radio from other members of Congress and the U.S. media, the BBG staff and VOA director Dan Austin, a Republican who takes orders from the Board and can be fired by them, implemented the Russian program cut without issuing any announcements to the American public. Earlier warnings from members of Congress, foreign policy experts, and human rights organizations apparently convinced the BBG staff of the need for quick action and secrecy.
A few days before the BBG acted to terminate VOA Russian radio on July 26, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) specifically warned them and the Bush Administration not to stop Voice of America broadcasts to Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tibet, and the Balkans, “where freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary.” The BBG ignored his warning. Russian tanks rolled into Georgia on August 8.
While any direct role Senator Biden may have played in shutting down VOA radio broadcasts to Russia still needs to be clarified, it is unlikely that he was completely unaware of the nature of the contacts between his staff and the BBG. According to FreeMediaOnline.org president “as someone who claims strong experience and sophistication in foreign policy matters, Senator Biden should have known and agreed with many of his colleagues in the Senate and the House of Representatives, both Democrats and Republicans, that stopping VOA radio to Russia would be seen as a gift from the U.S. government and the American people to Mr. Putin for his crackdown on the independent media. Senator Biden also should have known that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is now more vulnerable to intimidation by Russia’s secret police than it was even during the Cold War and that it cannot possibly be the voice for the American people to the people in Russia,” said Lipien.
Lipien pointed out that U.S.-based Voice of America journalists are American citizens or U.S. residents and as such are directly accountable to Congress and to the American people. Media freedom nonprofit representative suggested that in order to preserve his credibility as a foreign policy expert, Senator Biden should explain the actions of his staff and join his Congressional colleagues in condemning the Broadcasting Board of Governors for “seriously undermining America’s ability to communicate with foreign audiences in a time of crisis.”