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Radio Liberty Russian managers put a positive spin on Putin's comments about the murder of a pro-democracy journalist

by Ted Lipien

FreeMediaOnline.org Dublin, CA, October 19, 2006 -- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Russian Service managers have expressed hope that the Kremlin will allow them to report and broadcast in Russia despite President Putin's' crackdown on local independent media and international broadcasters. RFE/RL Moscow bureau chief, Elena Glushkova, said in an on-air Radio Liberty discussion earlier this week that her optimism is based on her belief in the common sense of the current Russian leadership. Maria Klain, 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. RFE/RL's broadcasts to Russia and other countries in the region are funded by the U.S. Congress through the independent bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

These comments by Radio Liberty managers surprised and offended some pro-democracy activists in Russia who are still mourning the death of prominent investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. She was murdered in Moscow in an execution-style hit earlier this month. Her killing generated fear among independent journalists in Russia about their safety and concerns about their ability to continue any kind of investigative reporting. A new report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent international NGO, found that 42 journalists had been killed in Russia since 1992, making Russia the third deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, behind only the conflict-ridden countries of Iraq and Algeria.

According to pro-democracy activists, fears and concerns of Russian journalists have been compounded by President Putin's comments about Anna Politkovskaya made a few days after her murder. The Russian leader suggested that her influence in Russia as a journalist had been limited to the human rights circles. He also said that her killing had brought more damage to Russia than any damage caused by her reporting. Anna Politkovskaya's stories about murders and other human rights abuses in Chechnya had been highly critical of the Russian leadership. She had also exposed and criticized human rights abuses by Chechen rebels and other groups. Although President Putin condemned her murder, some interpreted his comments as a warning to journalists not to engage in reporting which the authorities would consider anti-Russian.

Former Radio Liberty Russian Service director, Mario Corti, who now lives in Italy and is no longer associated with RFE/RL, told FreeMediaOnline.org that after Anna Politkovskaya's murder and President Putin's remarks about her work, many pro-democracy activists think that life in Russia has become impossible for anyone who values freedom, although he expressed confidence that her sacrifice in defense of human dignity will not be in vain. In an open letter published on his web site (www.mario-corti.com) and on the FreeMediaOnline.org web site, Mr. Corti was critical of the pro-Kremlin media coverage of the murder and President Putin's statement. Mr. Corti is a member of the FreeMediaOnline.org Board of Directors and writes books and articles about Russia. FreeMediaOnline.org is a California-based nonprofit organization which supports freedom of the press worldwide.

In the Radio Liberty discussion this week, the station's program director in the Moscow bureau, Vladimir Baburin, also described President Putin's remarks as an attempt to intimidate independent journalists. But in an apparent response to the Russian leader's comments, Ms. Glushkova stressed that the work of Radio Liberty journalists cannot cause Russia any harm. According to Ms. Glushkova, RFE/RL reporters respect and love Russia. She also pointed out that all Radio Liberty reporters who work in Russia are Russian citizens.

Ms. Glushkova's public comments may be viewed as whistling past the graveyard considering President Putin's success in establishing state control over all major nationwide television channels and in imposing severe restrictions on other independent broadcasting in Russia, including Radio Liberty's local retransmissions. The Russian authorities have succeed in forcing all but four radio stations in Russia to stop rebroadcasting Radio Liberty news programs. Before the latest crackdown, RFE/RL had 30 affiliate radio stations in Russia. Following Moscow's lead, autocratic regimes in Central Asia and in the Caucasus are also clamping down on stations using Radio Liberty and Voice of America (VOA) news broadcasts in Russian and in other languages.

Ironically, the unusual and most likely forced optimism of the Radio Liberty Russian Service managers - if not their reporters - may be due to the policies adopted some time ago by the U.S. Administration and the Broadcasting Board of Governors and their recent attempts to restrict U.S. broadcasting to Russia. Under the requirements to show a constantly growing listenership, imposed on RFE/RL by the U.S. Congress and the BBG, Radio Liberty managers depend entirely for the survival of their broadcasting on the good will of the Russian authorities. If they cannot show growing audience figures, the Administration, some members of Congress and the BBG threaten to withdraw funding.

Due to competition from numerous local television and radio stations, entertainment programming and a much faster pace of life under new economic conditions, international broadcasters can no longer achieve high radio listenership rates in Russia, similar to those during the Cold War, without having their programs rebroadcast locally during prime time by major FM and AM networks and stations. However, under the restrictions imposed in recent years under President Putin, the ability of local stations to use Radio Liberty, Voice of America or BBC programs depends entirely on the approval from the Kremlin. The same is true to some extent for the ability of international broadcasters to maintain their news gathering operations in Russia.

In response to strong pressures from the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Administration and the BBG to make their broadcasts more commercially competitive and to keep their affiliates in Russia on-the-air, RFE/RL Russian Service managers have had little choice but to appease the Russian authorities. To make their programs more competitive, RFE/RL management has also greatly expanded news gathering operations in Russia by hiring almost three hundred local reporters and free-lance contributors. Radio Liberty Russian programs have been restructured in recent years to be less analytical, less polemical, faster-paced, and more news-oriented.

Critics have argued that Radio Liberty programs have also become less controversial after audience research, ordered by the BBG, showed that most Russians objected to strong outside criticism of their government and their society, and many considered RFE/RL as foreign radio station. Responding to audience research and pressures from the BBG, RFE/RL management decided to give Radio Liberty a more local and modern image but at the same time made the broadcaster even more dependent on the good will of the Russian authorities.

Concerned about their survival and keeping on the good side of President Putin or risking being kicked out of Russia, Radio Liberty Russian Service managers have found advocates of political negotiations with the Kremlin among the members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and among the BBG staff. Some of these individuals have had business dealings in Russia and may have been inclined to appease and negotiate with the Russian bureaucrats. The White House has also tried to stay on the good side of President Putin to win his support for anti-terror and nuclear control initiatives despite Moscow's increasingly uncooperative stance on most major issues, particularly the nuclear threat from Iran.

Earlier this year, the BBG endorsed the Bush Administration's request to completely eliminate Voice of America radio broadcasts in Russian and to slightly reduce RFE/RL Russian broadcasts on shortwaves. Despite reservations from a few of the Board members and some RFE/RL and VOA managers, the majority accepted assurances of BBG member Jeff Hirschberg, a Democrat, who is a frequent traveler to Russia, that President Putin would not try to shut down the remaining Radio Liberty rebroadcasts and local retransmissions of Voice of America television programs. Shortly after the announcement of VOA and RFE/RL Russian programming cuts, the Russian authorities forced most local stations to drop Radio Liberty and Voice of America rebroadcasts under the pretext that that had violated Russian regulations.

Throughout this time, the BBG has been under strong pressure from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to re-direct resources from its Russian broadcasts to its broadcasts to the Middle East and to other Muslim regions since the Administration was not willing to ask for a major budget increase for U.S. international broadcasting. The OMB officials and the majority of the BBG members, both Republicans and Democrats, have ignored clear signs that President Putin was completing his takeover of independent media. They disregarded his crackdown on independent television networks even though it was clear that he would not tolerate any major journalistic outlet that is too critical of his policies.

Some BBG members may have also been influenced by overly optimistic assessments from Moscow-based RFE/RL managers. But due to signals from Washington, these managers may have become convinced that under the current U.S. international broadcasting strategy they have no choice but to try to keep a presence in Russia by using their political connections and working with the Russian authorities. It is somewhat unusual, therefore, but perhaps not surprising, that even after the takeover of national television channels by President Putin, his continued crackdown on the remaining independent media, and the loss of nearly all RFE/RL and VOA affiliates in Russia, some Radio Liberty Russian Service managers still cling to the hope that the Russian leadership will be sensible in its approach to independent media, of which there is little left in Russia

A more likely explanation, however, is that RFE/RL managers do not really believe in the bright future for independent journalism in Russia, but - given all the options - they must continue to appeal to President Putin to tolerate their work by stressing their Russian patriotism. Pro-democracy activists in Russia, however, see such attempts as an insult to the memory of Anna Politkovskaya, especially after what President Putin had said about her after her murder.

Many Russian human rights activists and independent journalists have appealed to the Bush Administration and the BBG to reverse the proposed cuts in the U.S. broadcasts to Russia and to make program distribution less dependent on the whims of the Kremlin. They are urging the use of a more multimedia approach by employing multiple independent delivery channels, including the Internet, satellite TV, shortwave, and various forms of cooperation between Russian-speaking independent journalists in the West and in Russia.

Some members of Congress, who are also deeply concerned about diminishing U.S. support for press freedom in Eurasia, are now trying to restore funding for VOA and RFE/RL broadcasts to Russia and other countries in the region. FreeMediaOnline.org described the plans to reduce U.S. taxpayer-funded Russian broadcasts as a serious blow to independent journalism in Eurasia and a gift to dictators and authoritarian regimes in the region.

Comment

Sources

"15 Let Moskovskomu biuro Radia Svoboda," www.SvobodaNews.ru, October 15, 2006

Mario Corti "Former Radio Liberty Russian Service director Mario Corti - member of the FreeMediaOnline.org Board of Directors - comments on the slaying of Anna Politkovskaya". www.FreeMediaOnline.org, October12, 2006

Mario Corti "Anna Politkovskaya Cui Prodest," www.Mario-Corti.com, October 2006

Ted Lipien "U.S. International Broadcasting Strategy Contradicted by the Murder of Russian Journalist". www.FreeMediaOnline.org, October 9, 2006

"Mario Corti". www.FreeMediaOnline.org, October 2006

The United States Broadcasting Board of Governors, "Broadcasting Budget Targets War on Terror," www.bbg.org, February 6, 2006

Peter Finn, "Russia's Signal to Stations Is Clear: Cut U.S. Radio," The Washington Post, July 7, 2006

Anna Stepanova Politkovskaya, Wikipedia, October 2006

"Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya shot dead". Wikinews, October 7, 2006

Reporters Without Borders, "Predators of Press Freedom, " www.rsf.org, October 2006

Matthew Hansen, "Deadly News," The Committee to Protect Journalists, www.cpj.org, September 20, 2006