Voice of America Director’s Position Seen As Too Weak to Defend VOA Russian Radio

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog  Commentary by Ted Lipien, September 24, 2008, San Francisco — On Monday, September 22, 2008, VOA Director, Dan Austin, in the company of VOA Chief of Staff, Barbara Brady, VOA Associate Director of Language Programming, John Lennon, and VOA Senior Project Officer, Will Marsh, met with the VOA Ukrainian, Serbian, Hindi, and Portuguese-to-Africa services.  Austin announced that the Ukrainian radio service will continue broadcasting until December 31, 2008.  Austin also reiterated that the VOA Georgian radio broadcasts will continue indefinitely.  All the other services scheduled to end their radio broadcasts will end as of September 30, 2008.  The main purpose of the meeting was to announce that no employees would lose their jobs as a result of the cuts.
VOA Director Dan Austin.A member of the Ukrainian Service asked the VOA Director whether the Russian radio broadcasts would be reinstated.  In response he said that the decision was made on that and it would not be changed.  Austin went on to say that because  Mr. Putin controlled the affiliates in Russia, “we couldn’t get radio back on if we wanted to.”

Even if the information given by the VOA director was fully accurate, which it is not, the logic of his argument is appalling, to say the least. According to this line of reasoning, Mr. Putin will be rewarded for his crackdown on the local media by VOA’s decision to stop radio broadcasts not only on the affiliate stations in Russia but also on shortwave and the Internet.  

While it is true that Mr. Putin can easily close down all affiliates in Russia, both VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty still have access to AM frequencies in Moscow. RFE/RL continues to use its AM frequency while VOA now uses its AM frequency for VOA English programming only. BBC and RFE/RL did not stop their radio programming in Russian because Mr. Putin closed down most of their affiliates, and neither should VOA.

The VOA director knows or should have known that the decision to stop VOA Russian radio programs had very little to do with Mr. Putin, and a lot to do with bureaucratic politics that damage U.S. national security and public diplomacy. If anything, VOA should be now greatly expanding shortwave and Internet radio broadcasts in response to Mr. Putin’s crackdown on the Russian media. Instead, Mr. Austin is helping the BBG and its executive director to undermine America’s ability to safely and effectively communicate with the Russian people.

Mr. Austin knows that the BBG staff led by Jeff Trimble is preventing VOA Russian service from having any radio production, not even for the Web, in order to protect RFE/RL. Perhaps, there would be nothing wrong with that if RFE/RL could indeed do VOA’s job. But the Russian managers of this semi-private broadcaster, based largely in Moscow, express confidence in Mr. Putin’s leadership and give extensive airtime to racist Russian politicians who verbally attack Africans, Jews, and other minorities. I have warned that RFE/RL needs to protect its journalists who live in Russia with their families from the intimidation by Mr. Putin’s secret police. Journalists working under such conditions in Mr. Putin’s Russia can hardly be expected to accurately and objectively present American views and opinions. As U.S. government officials, Mr. Austin and Mr. Trimble had an obligation imposed on them by the American people and the U.S. Congress to seriously consider this issue before stopping VOA radio broadcasts to Russia. 

If Mr. Austin is concerned about the lack of radio affiliates in Russia, he should be even more concerned about the Internet-only strategy being forced on the VOA Russian service by Mr. Trimble, who was formerly RFE/RL’s acting president. Shouldn’t he be somewhat curious why Mr. Trimble is not advocating Internet-only strategy for RFE/RL but only for VOA?  If RFE/RL can have an outstanding Russian website, which it does, and still produce tons of radio programming and even video, why is the VOA Russian service staff, about 20 full time employees plus a number of stringers and purchase order vendors, only capable of doing a website with some video and nothing else. Mr. Austin should be concerned that these talented professionals are now woefully underemployed and that he, together with Jeff Trimble and the BBG members, is responsible for wasting U.S. taxpayers’ money.

The BBG staff would like, of course, Mr. Austin to believe that the Internet requires as many if not more resources than producing regularly scheduled radio and TV programs. If that were the case, RFE/RL and most other broadcasters around the world would have long ago be forced to stop their core broadcasting functions and use all of their resources for developing their Internet presence. If Mr. Austin believes in this myth, then the Voice of America is really in deep trouble. The so called VOA Russia Options paper produced by the BBG staff, which advocated the Internet-only option for VOA, is based on so many naive and misleading assumptions that any intelligent person could see that its only purpose was to prevent VOA from producing radio programs in Russian. Among other things, the paper advocated using Internet companies known to be controlled by the Russian security services.

When asked later why that question about VOA broadcasting to Russia was raised during a meeting with VOA director Dan Austin, a member of the Ukrainian Service said that “we are all Americans and it is important that we broadcast to Russia in Russian.” It is ironic that a Ukrainian VOA broadcaster would defend VOA broadcasts to Russia while the VOA director says that Mr. Putin has won the battle. Let’s hope Mr. Austin does not really believe the arguments, which were clearly prepared for him by the BBG staff. Those who know how the BBG operates say that the VOA director’s position is too weak for Dan Austin to stand up to Jeff Trimble.

We can only hope that Mr. Austin will find the courage to say to the BBG what needs to be said: the Russian Service of the Voice of America is one of the most important of VOA services and its radio broadcasts will be resumed and put on shortwave, the AM frequency in Moscow, and on the Web. The message from Mr. Austin should be that even if Mr. Putin closes down every single affiliate in Russia and blocks the Internet, VOA will broadcast radio to Russia on shortwave and satellite.

To do anything short of that would be a major failure for U.S. public diplomacy and would reward the enemies of media freedom. Let’s hope that Mr. Austin will find enough wisdom and courage to do what the American people and the supporters of democracy in Russia expect from the leader of an organization committed to promoting free flow of information to countries without free media.