The Broadcasting Broad of Governors and the Bush Administration fail to support media freedom in Eurasia
by Ted Lipien
Dublin, CA, July 9, 2006 -- News reports from Moscow that the Russian authorities have been successful in forcing most radio and television stations in Russia to drop local rebroadcasts of Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) programs show not only the decline of media freedom in that part of the world but also point to a serious lack of foresight and leadership on the part of the Bush Administration and the bipartisan U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). According to a report by Peter Finn, the Washington Post correspondent in Moscow, Russian regulators have forced more than 60 radio stations to stop using VOA and RFE/RL news programs. [Link] The Broadcasting Board of Governors not only failed to anticipate this move but took active measures to further weaken U.S. broadcasting in the region and reneged on its promises of support to independent journalists and media outlets who depend on VOA and RFE/RL programs.
Despite clear signs that the Putin government has been bent on marginalizing free media in Russia, the Bush White House had submitted a budget proposal for the 2007 fiscal year that called for the elimination of all Voice of America Russian language radio programs and authorized other program reductions at VOA and RFE/RL. The latest news from Moscow confirms the naïve nature of some of the expectations and assumptions of the Administration officials and the BBG members. Only a few months earlier, one of the board members insisted that the Kremlin will no longer harass station managers who cooperate with Western broadcasters.
At the very least, the bipartisan board in charge of all U.S. civilian international broadcasting failed to educate the Administration officials on the political risks of the assumptions that went into the 2007 budget proposal. But in the past some of the board members had taken an active role in proposing reductions in VOA and RFE/RL programs to countries with limited media freedom. Eager to fund their own favorite projects outside of Eurasia, they may have actually suggested the latest cuts to the Administration as an acceptable budget-saving measure. According to a BBG statement, the savings derived from the latest round of program reductions will be used to expand broadcasting to the Middle East. Despite clear warning signs from Russia and numerous warnings from VOA and RFE/RL managers, the Broadcasting Board of Governors failed to anticipate the Kremlin’s continuing crackdown on independent media in Russia.
While few would argue with the need for the United States to be more effective in communicating with the Muslim world, the BBG decision to cut programs to other critical areas where there is little or no media freedom is both shortsighted and unnecessary. The program cuts expose the inability of the Democratic and Republican board members to agree on a long-term, comprehensive broadcasting strategy. The cuts also show the board members’ preference for easy solutions to the budget problem and their ineffectiveness as leaders and advocates for more funding for U.S. international broadcasting.
The BBG plan calls for ending all VOA Russian-language radio programs and a reduction of RFE/RL Russian broadcasts. If implemented, these cuts will result in ending a 15-minute weekly VOA Russian-language radio and Internet broadcast to Belarus, the only country in Europe with a dictatorial regime. Another short VOA radio program with a special Internet content for Central Asia likewise faces imminent termination. VOA programs to Turkey, Georgia, Greece, Croatia, and Thailand would go off the air, as will VOA English worldwide news program. VOA broadcasting in English to Africa will continue. In addition to VOA Russian, VOA radio broadcasts in Albanian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Serbian, and Hindi would end while television programming in these languages would continue. RFE/RL will eliminate radio programming in Macedonian. [Link to BBG statement]
These moves by the Bush Administration and the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors will negatively impact independent journalists and media outlets not only in the Russian Federation but also in a number of other nations where free press is now being suppressed by repressive governments and distorted by corrupt media practices. Many of these countries have large Muslim populations. Unfortunately for them, they lack enough supporters among the individual members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors willing to speak out strongly in defense of continuing these broadcasts.
The irony of the BBG decisions is that at least in the short-run such drastic program cuts at VOA, and to some degree at RFE/RL, may not be necessary to fund the further expansion of U.S. broadcasting to the Middle East. The number of bureaucratic positions at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) – an entity in charge of providing program support and program delivery – has grown over the years under the board’s watch, while some VOA and RFE/RL language services have been reduced by the board’s actions to only two or three full time journalist positions.
At least in the short run, elimination of redundant administrative programs and positions could have easily paid for keeping VOA Russian radio broadcasts on-the-air with money to spare for more broadcasting to the Muslim world. In the long run, U.S. international broadcasting needs considerably more resources for an effective worldwide public diplomacy outreach. The BBG members have not been focused, however, on reforming VOA and IBB bureaucracies or on trying to get more money from the Bush Administration and the U.S. Congress. They have taken the easy way of financing their favorite broadcasting projects by closing down VOA and RFE/RL services they consider less essential, even if some of them broadcast to countries without free media.
Instead of lobbying for more money and developing a broad strategy to promote media freedom and explain U.S. policies and values throughout the world, individual board members have been consumed by partisan disputes and focused on supporting and even personally managing their own specific projects undertaken usually at the expense of the already existing broadcasting services at VOA and RFE/RL. The money taken from VOA and RFE/RL has been going to the new semi-privatized broadcasting entities, such as Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television. Both of these new broadcasting projects were undertaken under the close personal supervision of a former BBG member Norman Pattiz, a Democrat who has recently given up his seat on the board. At the insistence of Mr. Pattiz and some of the other board members, VOA has not been allowed to play any role in the Middle Eastern initiatives on the assumption that it was too bureaucratic and averse to using entertainment programming to attract an audience. Directors of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have been reduced to carrying out orders of the all-powerful board with little room for programming initiative and no freedom to make any strategic decisions.
In fact, audience gains achieved by Radio Sawa and to a lesser extent by Alhurra Television may have been largely due to millions of dollars spent on effective program delivery and local FM rebroadcasting in some of the Arab countries whose governments are friendly toward the U.S. Entertainment-oriented program content, favored by Mr. Pattiz, may turn out to be counterproductive in changing attitudes among TV viewers and radio listeners in socially conservative Arab and Muslim countries. Still, both Mr. Pattiz and the BBG Chairman Ken Tomlinson, a Republican, deserve credit for focusing on the problem of program delivery in the Middle East.
At the same time, with the exception of a couple of members, the board has been ignoring program delivery problems and media freedom violations in Eurasia and in other parts of the world no longer viewed as particularly important from their personal perspective. As ambitious and successful private sector entrepreneurs, they are naturally drawn to highly visible projects. They ignored advice suggesting that other countries, including Russia and China, may be even more important to the global war on terror because these nations are in a position to either block or support U.S. foreign policy initiatives and their populations are being exposed to anti-American propaganda. A few months ago a BBG member made a statement after talking with Russian officials in Moscow that the Kremlin will no longer try to prevent managers of local stations in Russia from rebroadcasting VOA and RFE/RL programs. Anybody with any experience in dealing with the Russian political and media scene in recent years would have known that this assessment was dangerously naïve.
Even with regard to broadcasting to the Middle East, the board members -- some of whom have been successful U.S. broadcasting entrepreneurs but lack international public diplomacy experience -- cannot agree on the overall strategy or the right programming mix. Their lack of confidence in the abilities and experience of Voice of America managers and broadcasters proved to be misguided, although IBB and VOA badly needed major administrative reforms and leadership, which the board has failed to provide. When the board members finally made a decision to give extra money to VOA by agreeing to pay for the expansion of VOA radio and television broadcasts and program delivery to Iran, VOA broadcasters were able to achieve significant audience gains with a reasonable mix of serious political analysis and entertainment programming.
In justifying its decision to eliminate VOA radio programs in Russian, the BBG claims that VOA television programs in Russian can fill the gap. As someone responsible for launching a daily VOA Russian television news program without receiving any additional funding or support from the BBG, I agree that satellite television and the Internet represent a good long-term strategy for Russia and Eurasia. Unfortunately, relying on satellite television alone at this time in countries like Russia, Belarus, and the Central Asian republics shows a serious lack of knowledge of the local media environment and a lack of political common sense. Unlike Iran, Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, there is still very little direct-to-home satellite television viewing in Russia and in other CIS countries.
While VOA Russian Service broadcasters have been struggling to maintain links with their independent broadcasting partners, the BBG decided to pull the plug on one of the essential elements of the program delivery strategy in Russia and the rest of Eurasia. This strategy, developed by VOA broadcasters themselves without much program delivery support from the board, aimed to explain America to Russian-speaking audiences, many of them Muslim, through the use of multiple interactive media. It was also designed to minimize the impact of government interference with any single program delivery channel, especially television.
VOA Russian-language television, radio, and Internet programs have been reaching different segments of the audience, promoting freedom of the press and democracy, supporting independent journalists, and maximizing VOA's audience reach and impact throughout Eurasia. These efforts continued despite the Russian government’s attempts to limit cooperation between VOA and local broadcasters. In Russian cities where VOA and RFE/RL have managed to hold on to their local rebroadcasting partners, the combined radio, television and Internet reach for U.S. taxpayer-supported broadcasts has been just as good if not better than what most American commercial radio stations are able to achieve in their metropolitan markets.
Most board members still do not understand that public diplomacy and international broadcasting are long-term endeavors which are built on developing a trust between information providers and their audiences. They are much more familiar with the private sector practice of starting and terminating radio and television programs. They do not seem to realize that international broadcasting, especially to countries without free media and serious human rights violations, requires a different approach.
Until a few months ago, the BBG kept assuring the remaining few independent broadcasters in the region that they can rely on free programming from VOA. The BBG has broken this promise at the time when independent journalists in Russia, Belarus, Central Asia, and the Caucasus need U.S. support more than at any time since the collapse of communism. Had the BBG members done their job of protecting and reforming U.S. international broadcasting and focused on the big picture instead of micro-managing their own individual broadcasting projects, there would be no need to cut the Russian-language radio broadcasts and other programs at VOA and RFE/RL. With their lack of international broadcasting experience and unwillingness to listen to advice from area experts at VOA and RFE/RL, it is not surprising that the latest news from Moscow turned out to be a great embarrassment for the BBG.
While the initiatives of the Broadcasting Board of Governors have managed to attract a respectable number of new listeners in the Middle East for Radio Sawa programs, these gains have been largely due to money spent on program delivery rather than through having an effective programming strategy aimed at changing the irrational anti-Americanism of the audience. It is important to note that these gains came at the expense of broadcasting to many other countries where media freedom is still under severe pressure. The latest programming cuts at VOA and RFE/RL are a continuation of this risky and unnecessary course by the Bush Administration and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The news reports out of Moscow show that the indifference to the cause of supporting media freedom in countries other than those which are currently a major focus of U.S. foreign policy will have disastrous long-term effects. The United States needs a consistent strategy for defending and promoting freedom of expression throughout the world as the best and relatively inexpensive insurance against future threats. The Bush Administration and the Broadcasting Board of Governors have failed to protect one of America’s most effective tools for communicating with audiences in Eurasia – a region which still lacks free press, is exposed to anti-American propaganda, and is threatened by religious and ethnic conflicts.
Ted Lipien had managed Voice of America broadcasts to Eurasia and their placement on local media outlets. He had also arranged program placement for RFE/RL in CIS countries and negotiated rebroadcasting leases in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He is now president and executive director of FreeMediaOnline.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping independent journalists in media-at-risk countries. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.