Op-Ed: America’s radios dancing to Putin’s tune in Moscow SPECIAL | Digital Journal

By Ted Lipien

Published March 2, 2012 by Digital Journal

Moscow – Voice of America and Radio Liberty, funded by US taxpayers to promote media freedom abroad, self-censor news on two stations in Moscow to comply with Russian media law prior to Russia’s presidential elections on March 4.

US government-funded media freedom broadcasters, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Liberty (Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, RFE RL), have resorted to self-censorship of their news to keep broadcasting on two leased radio stations in Moscow in the days leading up to Russian presidential elections. Self-censorship affects only their radio newscasts on two AM Moscow transmitters, which are leased and paid for by the US government to rebroadcast VOA and RL programs. It does not extend to their other program delivery options, such as their websites. The newscasts on these stations were changed in response to a request from Russian operators of the transmitters who had warned that broadcasting political programming or poll results several days before the elections would violate Russian media law.

Because uncensored VOA and RL newscasts are still available online and, in the case of Radio Liberty, also through shortwave radio transmissions, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages and funds these two broadcasters, said that the restrictions “do not interfere with the ability of the Voice of America or Radio Liberty to cover the elections or to carry on with their other duties.” In the case of the Voice of America, however, removing news even from some broadcasts may violate Public Law 94-350which mandates that  

“VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” Furthermore, the law, also known as the VOA Charter, stipulates that “VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” 

The BBG’s newly-hired director of communications Lynne Weil said in a response to an inquiry from Free Media Online, a US-based media freedom NGO, that “the BBG and its content providers, including the many individuals who risk their lives to shine the light of truth on some of the world’s darkest corners, are fiercely protective of their journalistic independence and integrity, and vigilant about any obstacles – real or potential – to getting their work done.”

Free Media Online said that any kind self-censorship of news, especially by stations established by US law and funded by American taxpayers to promote free press and democracy, sets a dangerous precedent and reveals a serious problem, particularly in the case of Russia where most of the media is controlled by the government and supporters of Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin. 

At the very least, the Broadcasting Board of Governors should have made a strong public announcement that its mission in Russia is being obstructed instead of keeping nearly silent about this problem and hoping that no one would notice,” a spokesman for Free Media Online said. 

Free Media Online has been critical of the Broadcasting Board of Governors for lacking transparency, over-dependence on authoritarian regimes for local program placement, and BBG’s most recent decision to terminate Voice of America shortwave radio broadcasts to Tibet and all VOA news programs in Cantonese to China.

The letter sent to the Broadcasting Board of Governors by the operator of the Radio Liberty station in Moscow warned of  a five-day ban on opinion polls, forecasts and use of research related to the campaigns or elections. The ban applies to the period from February 28 to March 4, 2012.  Additionally, the letter states that on the day before and day of the election, there are what Russian authorities call “silence days” during which it is prohibited to broadcast (or print) positive or negative information about any of the candidates and/or political parties.  This means no analysis or opinions pertaining to the candidates or elections and no information that can in any way “influence” voters.  While a few Western democracies have laws that place less severe restrictions on media reporting, usually only on the election day, in Russia Prime Minister Putin has established effective control over most media to guarantee his reelection to the presidency. Numerous independent journalists who were outspoken in their criticism of the Kremlin and other Russian government bodies have been assassinated during the last decade. 

BBG spokeswoman suggested that other Western media organizations whose news programs are available directly through local media outlets in Russia received similar letters and are also complying with requests for altering their news coverage. It is one thing, however, to comply with laws in democratic nations and another to accept restrictions on media freedom in a country ruled by an authoritarian regime, especially for an American institution created to set an example for local independent media and to promote media freedom abroad. The BBG pays hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for these two weak AM transmitters in Moscow. Since the BBG claims that its newscasts also can be easily accessed online, that money might be better spent on US-operated shortwave transmitters to reach those without Internet access in Russia rather than making Putin supporters richer and allowing them to dictate VOA and RL news coverage. Some of the money could be used to advertise shortwave frequencies in Russian media, for as long as that is allowed, and the remainder on improving radio, TV and new media coverage of human rights issues.

BBG spokeswoman insisted that that the Russian media law has virtually no impact on the Voice of America Russian Service because nearly all of its audience accesses its programming online. The BBG terminated all VOA shortwave radio and satellite television broadcasts to Russia in 2008, losing all of its Russian radio and TV audience.  

The VOA Russian Service intends to report on the elections and update its website and blogs throughout the election cycle, without any restriction on its activities, BBG spokeswoman said. The VOA Russian Service prepares, however, a 30 minute radio program that gets broadcast Monday through Friday on another AM station in Moscow. The rest of VOA’s programming on the Moscow medium-wave station is in English.  Because the frequency is on a local lease, it is subject to the Russian law.  To comply, in the five days before the election the VOA English Service is making a  change to the 24/7 stream sent to Moscow —  replacing its five-minute hourly newscast with a pre-recorded segment that invites audiences to go online to VOANews.com for news and information about Russia and the world, Lynne Weil said. The remainder of English stream to Moscow is unchanged.  

Prior to 2008, the Russian secret police put pressure on private radio and television stations in Russia to stop rebroadcasting VOA and RL programs. Experts speculate that the two AM stations in Moscow were allowed to carry these programs because they are directly controlled by the Russian authorities. This highly-controlled arrangement allows them to claim that there is media freedom in Russia and that Russian programs such as Russia Today and Voice of Russia should have unlimited access to US cable networks and private US radio stations, which they do. 

Critics charge that the BBG’s overeagerness to place programs on local networks in countries like Russia and China has resulted in many  examples of removal of VOA brand name and downplaying the media freedom mission to achieve program placement and higher audience ratings even at the price of self-censorship. An influential independent Russian journalist and new media scholar Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy has accused the VOA Russian Service staff of having a pro-Putin bias and downplaying human rights reporting. After the BBG terminated VOA Russian broadcasts in 2008, many seasoned VOA Russian Service reporters and editors were replaced with poorly-paid contractors hired from Russia. They had recently placed on the VOA website an interview with a leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny that turned out to be fake. Navalny suggested that they should all be replaced. 

Human rights organizations in Russia have also criticized Radio Liberty’s Russian Service of a similar pro-Kremlin bias and for providing a forum for nationalist extremists. One expert pointed out that with the large Radio Liberty news bureau in Moscow, it would be inconceivable that the Russian security services which take their orders from a former KGB officer Vladimir Putin are not actively engaged in a campaign of behind the scenes intimidation and infiltration against the US supported broadcaster.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) also has its critics in the United States, including its employees who anonymously access and report for an independent website BBG Watch (www.bbgwatch.com). Many question why programs for Tibet, China, Chechnya in the Russian Federation, Georgia as well as VOA English and many other programs were chosen for severe cuts and layoffs while BBG executives, rated as the worst managers in the federal government, give themselves bonuses, create new bureaucratic positions and promote a programming philosophy that encourages self-censorship. 

It appears that not even all BBG members have confidence in the executive staff. Senior Republican Victor Ashe — the Board has four Democrats and four Republicans with the Secretary of State serving as an ex officio ninth member — has been highly critical of poor employee morale and foreign control of BBG program delivery channels. Other part-time BBG members, however, still seem more inclined to rely on the executive staff which can claim no support of its journalists and other rank-and-file employees. These executives have developed a strategic restructuring plan, which critics argue would give them even more power and limit accountability, transparency and public scrutiny over US international broadcasting.

Employees also suspect that there may be also political reasons for focusing the BBG’s cuts on countries with the most severe restrictions on media and the greatest human rights violations. Removing the Voice of America brand-name, which implies prestige and support of the American people, may be the Obama Administration’s attempt to soothe the Chinese communist dragon, one BBG employee said. Employees do not believe that the BBG’s claim of trying to save money in the environment of tight federal budgets is credible in light of the lavish spending on BBG executives and contractors such as the Gallup Organization which received a $50 million five-year contract just before program cuts and layoffs were announced. The BBG claims that Radio Free Asia (RFA), which it also manages, can fill the gap left by VOA in Tibet and China. Human rights groups argue, however, that while RFA broadcasts are both excellent and needed, Voice of America broadcasting offers a special measure of credibility and moral support from the American people that a private radio cannot provide. One anonymous BBG journalist wrote a desperate commentary

“The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) budget submission requests cutting seven employees out of 22 in the Voice of America (VOA) Tibetan Service, ending all six hours of daily VOA Tibetan radio broadcasts.This is happening on the day China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, heir apparent of the communist regime, arrives in Washington on a get-to-know-you visit.This is happening while Tibet is burning. A day after the 23rd Tibetan monk self-immolated to protest unprecedented Chinese crackdown on their religion.This is happening one week after CCTV, China’s state TV, launched its first live daily broadcast from its brand new 36000 sq ft studio in Washington DC, the first step of China’s $7 billion media offensive in America.What is the BBG thinking? Has the Broadcasting Board of Governors gone mad?”        

The independent, nongovernmental Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – www.cusib.org), whose members include many human rights activists, joined forces with BBG employees to convince members of Congress of both parties to stop last year the BBG’s plan to end all VOA broadcasts to China. This year CUSIB again  issued an open letter to Congress adamantly objecting to the BBG’s latest plan to end or reduce broadcasts to Tibet, China and other countries without free media. 

Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America journalist and former VOA acting associate director. He co-founded Free Media Online and the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting.

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