FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, September 29, 2008, San Francisco — The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ decision to prevent the Voice of America from being a broadcaster in Russia has destroyed VOA’s ability to have any significant impact on the Kremlin and the Russian public opinion. With its radio broadcasts silenced by the BBG just 12 days before the Russian military forces attacked Georgia, the VOA Russian Service website is now just one of hundreds of thousands of news websites and blogs in Russia.
This seems to be part of the BBG strategy to make VOA permanently insignificant and ineffective as a provider of political news to Russian-speaking audiences. To make sure the Voice of America does not retain any broadcasting capabilities in the CIS countries, the BBG bureaucrats are preventing the Russian Service from producing any regularly scheduled radio or TV program even for placement on the Web. In addition to distribution over the Internet, such programs could be put also on shortwave transmitters and on a still available AM frequency in Moscow.
The BBG executive director Jeff Trimble does not want this to happen as this would threaten the U.S.-funded broadcasting monopoly in Russia of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, his previous employer. BBG member Ted Kaufman, who was formerly Senator Biden’s chief of staff, does not want it to happen because RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state. They do not seem to care that RFE/RL’s independence and the security of its reporters have been seriously undermined by the BGG’s strategy to generate most of RFE/RL programming from the news bureau in Moscow right under the watchful eyes of the FSB, the successor to the KGB and Mr. Putin’s former employer.
I also doubt that the BBG staff is actually concerned that the Russian security services can easily block or sabotage the VOA Russian website. If they were, they would not have forced VOA to rely on a single website as its only program delivery option in Russia. Because of that, there is no reason for the Kremlin to consider the website as any kind of threat to Mr. Putin’s control over the domestic media, nor does the Kremlin consider Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a particular threat as long as RFE/RL in Russia remains under close observation by the FSB. The Russian security services know that most of RFE/RL reporters are Russian citizens who live in Russia with their families and can be monitored and intimidated. Broadcasting from Washington rather than Moscow and Prague, VOA could be more of a challenge to the authoritarian Russian rulers and their secret police apparatus than RFE/RL Russian broadcasts are in their current status.
How can Mr. Putin take the BBG, VOA director Dan Austin, and the remaining VOA Russian website seriously? Their message, repeated last week by the VOA director, is that Mr. Putin has won the battle. He has closed down most of VOA and RFE/RL radio affiliates and, therefore, VOA — but interestingly not RFE/RL — should get out of the radio business in Russia. The BBG and Dan Austin now realize that VOA relied too much on one program delivery strategy, i.e. the affiliate stations. But at least until July 26, VOA had several additional program delivery options in Russia: shortwave and Internet radio programs, satellite radio programs, satellite TV programs, Internet TV programs, and a website.
The BBG’s answer to the censorship and intimidation of affiliates in Russia is to have now only one program delivery option for VOA — an interactive new media website. There are already hundreds of thousands of such websites, and each one of them can be easily blocked. The VOA Russian website has nothing that makes it different from all the others, not even a regularly scheduled online radio program or a call-in show because the BBG staff will not allow it to happen. No wonder that the Kremlin is not concerned.
The Russian security services would not be able to completely stop VOA broadcasts if they were distributed using multiple delivery systems, including shortwave. The Internet is an important part of such a diversification strategy and should be used. It should not be, however, the only programming and program delivery option. As Paul Goble reports in Window on Eurasia, the Kremlin is capable of blocking and sabotaging unwanted websites with some help from willing hackers.
Window on Eurasia, September 27, 2008, Eagles Mere, PA –The Kremlin will not be able to close down Internet sites it doesn’t like without using hackers, either those working directly for its security services or those inspired by Moscow’s propaganda campaigns, according to a leading Russian specialist on that country’s intelligence services. Read more in Dr. Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia.
VOA broadcasts in Russian are very important and should certainly be restored. But to blame RFE/RL and its supporters for what happened can ultimately be damaging to both radios, even if there’s some truth in it. For one thing,the bureaucracy doesn’t like discord.
And, more importantly, each Radio has its own distinct and vital mission that should not be jeopardized by squabbling.
We’ve always had trouble with budget cutters and other types who survey the scene, notice that more than one radio is aimed at the same target, and think this is a redundancy and a good place to cut costs. As you know, nothing could be more fallacious.
I always quote Henry Loomis, one of the great VOA directors of an earlier age, who used to say that the two Radios were like the blades of a scissors: neither could cut without the other.
So in pressing for VOA to regain its rightful place in the ehter, let’s keep it positive.
Forgive me for preaching, but as you can see I have strong feelings for both radios.
I’m just about to finish reading your book Radio Liberty: Radio Hole-in-the-head. There are just a few pages left. Great stuff, thank you so much! I appreciate your honesty, humor and beautiful style. I’ve read quite a few books on international broadcasting. Yours is my favorite.
I’m not sure I like Loomis’ scissors analogy, though. Sounds a bit threatening to me. With VoA Russian out of picture, is RL just a knife, then? 😉 Maybe it’s better to talk about two wings that a bird needs to fly or about figure skating that enjoyed the most when it’s done in a pair…
Poetic images aside, IMHO VoA Russian didn’t reflect America very well during its last years on the air. I’m sorry but RL isn’t much better, either. I’m afraid that both services are mostly irrelevant in today’s Russia.
In principle, I completely agree with you. VOA and RFE/RL have quite distinctive and complementary roles, and both have a great past record of supporting media freedom. I would have said nothing about the bureaucratic politics of the BBG staff, but the VOA Russian Service no longer exists as a serious broadcasting operation because of their actions, which — I must say — have been daringly brilliant. (1. Ignoring the will of Congress. 2. Taking the VOA radio program off the air in complete secrecy. 3. Lying that Congress had approved it. 4. Persisting in keeping VOA Russian radio off the air after Russia attacked Georgia. ) There is far more than just “some truth” to it. The BBG staff made sure that VOA will never have any effective role as an American radio station in Russia.
RFE/RL is not at fault here, although its top management should have resisted BBG directives that changed it from a surrogate to an internal broadcaster, which is now exposed to intimidation by the Russian security services. They definitely have a serious problem with their current setup in Russia.
Perhaps it would have been better to keep quiet about it, but since the BBG staff also destroyed VOA Russian radio, the problem is too serious to ignore. If the BBG restores VOA broadcasting in Russia and moves to protect RFE/RL journalists and the independence of their programs, I will be the first one to praise them.
We could then address the issue raised by Sergei as to what needs to be done to make both RFE/RL and VOA more effective in the Russian media market. The BBG is destroying an American institution and FreeMediaOnline.org has a journalistic duty to report it even if it makes the BBG bureaucrats angry and less likely to give in. I doubt, however, that having taken a great risk in destroying VOA radio, anything short of public and/or Congressional outrage is likely to change their minds.
Ted. Let me try to clarify. I didn’t mean to exempt the BBG from the criticism that it richly deserves, or the VOA and RFE/RL managements. What I’m against is pitting the two radios against each other as institutions. Over the years, there’s been a regrettable tendency among employees and partisans of both radios to see themselves as in competition, even though their missions are completely different. It’s wrong to look at support from the government as an inflexible pie, where if one gets a bigger slice, then the other gets a smaller. When both sides are doing their jobs well, the pie gets bigger and each slice can grow. That may seem like “pie in the sky,” but in the long run it’s true.
Sergei. The scissors analogy goes back to the early Cold War, when all the major Western radios were trying to cut through jamming. I’m happy to adopt your “bird-can-only-fly-on-two-wings” as more appropriate today–so far. Glad you’re enjoying my “Radio-Hole-in-the-Head.”
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