How Self-Censorship Works – Putin, GQ, and US Taxpayer-Supported Radio Liberty

President Bush and President Putin, July 15, 2006
TedLipien.comCensorship and self-censorship have become a permanent feature of the media scene in Russia under Mr. Putin’s rule. Many Americans, however, were surprised last week that this kind of censorship with origins in Moscow has now reached corporate boardrooms in their own country and even put limits on news generated by US taxpayer supported Radio Liberty, which broadcasts to Russia.


There is clear evidence that censorship at Conde Nast was aimed not only at readers in Russia but also at consumers of news media in the United States and throughout the world. The publishers of the GQ magazine not only prevented the printing in Russia of Scott Anderson’s article about Prime Minister Putin but also banned it from the Internet. It cannot be read even on the GQ’s American website.


Obviously, Conde Nast executives were afraid that they could be prevented by the Russian authorities from selling their magazines and generating future advertising revenues in Russia. Perhaps they were also concerned about their Russian employees losing their jobs, or worse, being sued for libel or physically attacked. These things have happened to other publishers and journalists in Russia, but by now most have learned their lesson. If corporate executives in New York can be so easily intimidated, it’s not surprising that the vast majority of Russian media outlets also hold on to their publishing profits and protect jobs by practicing similar self-censorship.


Americans with some knowledge of these things may have thought that at least Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, which are funded by the US Congress, are not guided by commercial concerns and are still broadcasting uncensored news to Russia quickly and extensively. If they assumed that to be true in recent years, they would be sadly mistaken.


The Russian websites of both stations completely ignored the GQ censorship story for a number of days after it broke in the mainstream US media with an NPR report on Friday, September 4. VOA and the RFE/RL Russian website waited several days to report on the story and did it only after, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit, exposed their silence and pointed out that independent bloggers in the US had already translated the banned article into Russian and posted it online.


One should ask why would Radio Liberty Russian Service ignore such a story on its news website for several days and would not offer a full translation or at least extensive excerpts from the banned article?


The answer to this question lies with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan board which manages Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. The BBG made a decision several years ago to operate in Russia the same way as Conde Nast and other Western commercial media. It opened a large news bureau for Radio Liberty in Moscow, hired hundreds of local reporters, and declared that the US radios’ success in Russia will be measured by the size of their audience. There was no plan B — and there still isn’t any — to protect Radio Liberty journalists and their news operations in Russia from intimidation by the FSB and from self-censorship.


I was not surprised at all to see that no one among those responsible for editing Radio Liberty’s Russian language website wanted to be the first one to write about the GQ story involving Prime Minister Putin and the FSB. There are many stories that Radio Liberty reporters can safely write about, and they do — some of them critical of the Kremlin and the human rights situation — but many of us in the NGO community have noticed during the last few years a remarkable reluctance among some BBG members and Radio Liberty managers to publicly criticize Mr. Putin and the Russian government, even when faced with most serious violations of media freedom. The only explanation can be that they do not want to threaten their continued presence in Russia. reported for example that shortly after the brutal assassination of anti-Kremlin investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, Radio Liberty’s Russian Service managers have expressed hope that the Kremlin will allow them to report and broadcast. These comments, which seemed clearly motivated by fear of the Russian authorities, were made despite overwhelming evidence of President Putin’s’ growing crackdown on independent media.


RFE/RL Moscow bureau chief said at the time that this optimism was based on her belief in the common sense of the current Russian leadership. 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. The Moscow-based manager said that the work of local Radio Liberty journalists cannot cause Russia any harm since they are Russian citizens who respect and love their country.


Members of the human rights and media freedom community in Russia and in the US were appalled by these self-serving and apologetic comments coming so close after the murder of a prominent opposition journalist. This happened after veteran journalists who had opposed BBG-imposed programming changes at Radio Liberty were either fired or forced out. BBG-hired consultants advised less emphasis on human rights, culture, and intellectual discussions and more on programs that would please an average Russian listener who is highly nationalistic and pro-Putin. Not surprisingly, after these programming changes were put into place, Russian human rights activists criticized Radio Liberty for giving extensive airtime to a Russian nationalist politician known for his racist views and warned that such programs promote violence against Africans and other foreigners. Read about a similar development at the BBG-managed Alhurra Television for the Middle East.


None of this could not have been predicted. If US taxpayer-supported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a large number of reporters who are Russian citizens and live in Russia without any protection from their employer; if the radio station maintains extensive news gathering facilities in Russia; and if its governing body declares that the station can only be successful if it can reach a wide audience in Russia and must have a large presence there and use local media channels — the Broadcasting Board of Governors should have anticipated that under such arrangements and the corporate culture they helped to create, many Radio Liberty employees would chose their safety, their families, their jobs, their pay and benefits, and continued employment in Russia over the need to fight censorship by exposing crimes of high-level FSB and other government officials, especially if these officials have the legal power to order them to cooperate or to arrest them.


The BBG has not only failed to protect their reporters who are Russian citizens, it deprives them of some of the same protections and benefits which it grants to RFE/RL’s American and Czech employees, thus making them more likely victims of the FSB. Third-country journalists working for RFE/RL in the Czech Republic can be dismissed at any time. It’s hardly surprising that faced with a radioactive news story about Mr. Putin, they did not want to take risks that both the BBG and the Russian authorities might find for different reasons unwelcome.


The question is why the Broadcasting Board of Governors did not see this and why American taxpayers should continue to give it hundreds of millions of dollars if the NGO media freedom community and independent bloggers have to do the job that BBG-managed broadcasters have been paid to do but are afraid to do it.


As one of my contacts with links to Radio Liberty pointed out in response to my question: “Why the Russian Web Desk at Radio Liberty ignored GQ?” — “Do you really think that the present RFE/RL is more adventurous than Conde Nast, having a bureau in Moscow that can be closed at the whim of, say, pozharnika?” The last word refers to Russian fire safety inspectors whom the FSB uses to put out of business radio and TV stations that run afoul of the Kremlin.


Even though they were left far behind on this story by independent American and Russian bloggers, America still needs uncensored and effective Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. NGOs have no resources to match local languages radio and TV broadcasting by RFE/RL and VOA, nor can they speak as an authoritative voice of the US government and the American people, which VOA is by law required to do. It is unfortunate that when censorship is growing in Russia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America are not doing what American taxpayers hired them to do.


Another ironic twist to this story is that the BBG has been cutting budgets for radio and TV broadcasting in favor of Internet journalism and ignoring the fact that the FSB has a major operation designed to block offending websites in case of a political or military emergency, which they demonstrated during the Russian-Georgian war.


Of course, not everybody at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has been affected to the same degree by the FSB and the BBG broadcasting strategy. The RFE/RL English-language website, which exists largely to generate support for the station on Capital Hill, did report quickly on the GQ-Putin-FSB story. Unfortunately, this is not the website most Russians turn to for uncensored news and information.


The Voice of America’s role in this journalistic fiasco is somewhat different. VOA is based in Washington, DC and its reporters cannot be easily intimidated by the FSB. But they also cannot be fully protected from the BBG’s misguided models, which were taken from commercial broadcasting but which cannot be used to fight censorship. The Broadcasting Board of Governors has the power to do what it wants. In August 2008, it terminated all VOA Russian radio broadcasts just 12 days before the Russian military launched an military attack on Georgia. After going through BBG-ordered program and staff reductions, VOA is no longer able to sustain a 24/7 news operation and was not able to respond to the GQ censorship story in a timely and effective manner. has learned that no experienced editor was available for duty at the VOA Russian Service over the Labor Day weekend to write an in-depth report for the web on this or any other sensitive news story. After being criticized by, the Russian Service managed to place on its website a short news item about Scott Anderson’s article one day earlier than Radio Liberty, but in-depth coverage had to wait until Monday and Tuesday, more than three days after the NPR story and the posting of the full article in Russian translation by independent bloggers in the US.


It is also interesting to examine what happened after criticism from Free Media Online. Russian services at both VOA and RFE/RL went overboard in reporting on the story — posting interviews with Scott Anderson (both RFE/RL and VOA) and with his main source, a former FSB officer turned critic (VOA) — but in the rush to rectify their earlier sins of omission, they were not as sophisticated as they should have been in pointing out which charges against Mr. Putin are real, which are unproven, and which may simply be advanced without any proof by Mr. Berezovsky and others among Mr. Putin’s political rivals whom he had imprisoned or forced to leave Russia.


VOA’s and RFE/RL’s subsequent reporting also lacked a measure of sophistication in explaining how the FSB could have manipulated the terrorist bombings to Mr. Putin’s advantage without any direct orders from the Kremlin. Again, independent bloggers in the US and in Russia have done a much better job than either of the Congressionally-funded US broadcasters. And again, American taxpayers should not be surprised. The US Government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has been consistently rating the Broadcasting Board of Governors as one of the worst-managed Federal agencies.

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