SAVE VOICE OF AMERICA BROADCASTS TO GEORGIA AND RUSSIA
Crippled by Service Closures, Voice of America Struggles To Respond to Russia’s Attack on Georgia
Free MediaOnline.org San Francisco, August 17, 2008 — Since Russia invaded Georgia earlier this month, four Voice of America Georgian broadcasters in Washington, D.C. have fought exhaustion to keep programming on the air. With VOA Russian radio programs already shut down as a result of cuts ordered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, they are the only broadcasters left in the Voice of America to respond to the Russian attack on Georgia with on air radio broadcasts to the war zone.
The ranks are thin because, for several years now, a small group of political appointees, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, has been diverting funding for broadcasts to countries like Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, and Tibet to their own pet programs. The BBG is a bipartisan entity charged with overseeing U.S. taxpayer-funded international broadcasts. As such, it controls the allocation of resources between broadcasting services, as well as requests for funding amounts.
After September 11, the BBG pushed a no-expense-spared reinvention of broadcasts toward the Arab world, adopting the format and style of the U.S. commercial broadcasting where most of the governors had gained their experience. With extensive use of music and entertainment programming, and accordingly high pricetags, these broadcasts have been criticized by investigative journalists at ProPublica.org and at other American media outlets as propagandistic, simplistic, offensive to religious Muslims, giving airtime to extremists calling for acts of violence against Americans, and generally ineffective. The BBG insists that the broadcasts to the Middle East have large audiences and a significant impact.
The Board places a high priority on itself as well. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, the BBG members recently also requested a significant increase in their public relations budget. In addition board members and their staff make frequent trips to Prague, where Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is based, as well as to Moscow, where Radio Liberty has a large news bureau. Several current and past Board members and their staff and contractors have business interests in Russia, such as BBG member Jeff Hirschberg, who is a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council.
Despite opposition from Congress to closure of the Georgian Service, over the past two years the BBG succeeded in reducing the number of service employees to a skeleton crew. Most of the funding once used for Georgian broadcasts is now going elsewhere. The plan was and is to see the service go off the air altogether by the end of September 2008.
A few days before the Russian invasion, the Board quietly ordered the elimination of all Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia despite a warning from the Senate Appropriations Committee and Senator Patrick Leahy to continue “broadcasting in languages which the Administration proposed to eliminate in FY09, such as Russian, Kazak, Uzbek, Tibetan and the to the Balkans, where freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary.” The VOA Russian service is now restricted to updating a website. A BBG spokesperson insisted that “Congress was on board” with the cuts, including the elimination of VOA radio service to Russia and Georgia. Neither the BBG nor VOA issued a public announcement on the ending of VOA Russian radio broadcasts, however. The last day of the broadcasts was set for the end of July when most of the members of Congress were away from Washington.
As a result of the program cuts, the only Voice of America U.S. radio news going into Georgia or Russia at this time comes from the four-person staff of the Georgian service. The service barely managed to double its airtime from 30 minutes to 60 minutes daily, working extraordinary hours without any days off . By contrast, when the communist regime in Poland moved against the Solidarity labor union and declared martial law in 1981, the Voice of America Polish Service had about a dozen employees and was able to increase broadcasts from one hour and a half to seven hours daily almost overnight.
ProPublica.org, an investigative reporting non-profit led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, has issued a number of articles highly critical of the BBG. FreeMediaOnline.org concluded that silencing the Voice of America Russian Service just before the Russian invasion of Georgia showed a grave lack of foresight and abdication of the Board’s responsibility to preserve America’s ability to communicate with foreign audiences in times of crisis.
The BBG has justified funding decisions by insisting that the success of individual services should be judged primarily by audience ratings. Ratings of the VOA Russian and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Russian services dropped after Russian authorities forced most local stations to stop rebroadcasting them.
The BBG continues to fund Russian broadcasts of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a semi-private entity airing so-called “surrogate” radio programs. FreeMediaOnline.org has questioned whether Radio Liberty can effectively report on controversial events when most of its reporters work and live in Russia, where they are subject to intimidation and pressure from Russia’s secret police and intelligence services. A Moscow-based human rights organization has recently criticized Radio Liberty for giving “air time to racists and ‘ultra-right’ extremists.” But in a recent interview, RFE/RL president Jeff Gedmin, expressed confidence in the value of “surrogate broadcasting” as “giving people news and information that their own governments deny them, mostly domestic news.” However, during the Cold War, RFE/RL surrogate broadcasters lived in the West and were not operating within the reach of the Kremlin’s secret police as they do now, a point Gedmin and the BBG members have not addressed publicly.
FreeMediaOnline.org reported that in October 2006, shortly after the murder of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian Service managers insisted that the Kremlin will allow them to report and broadcast in Russia despite President Putin's' crackdown on the local independent media and international broadcasters. RFE/RL Moscow bureau chief, Elena Glushkova, said in an on-air Radio Liberty discussion that her optimism was 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. Many members of Congress and numerous foreign policy and human rights experts have since expressed alarm at increasing repression by the Russian government.
Many BBG meetings are closed to the public, but FreeMediaOnline.org sources say that a majority of the board continues to favor cutting broadcasts to media-at-risk countries, including Georgia and Russia. The members supporting cuts are Joaquin Balaya, chairman of Balaya Media Inc.; Jeff Hirschberg, a partner of in Kalorama Partners, a consulting firm that deals with corporate governance and risk assessment; Edward E. Kaufman, president of Public Strategies, a political and management consulting firm based in Wilmington, Delaware; and Steven J. Simmons, chairman and CEO of Patriot Media and Communications, LLC. A fifth member, Blanquita Cullum, a radio broadcaster, opposes the reductions, according to FreeMediaOnline.org sources. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice serves as an ex officio member. Three seats on the board currently are empty, after the recent departure of former Board Chairman James K. Glassman, who also favored program cuts at VOA. Glassman is now the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
Jeff Trimble, a former acting RFE/RL president, is the Board's executive director responsible for managing budget issues and Congressional liaison. The BBG ordered VOA director, Dan Austin, to shut down VOA Russian radio broadcasts on July 26, only days before Russia's invasion of Georgia. Austin carried out the Board's order. Previous VOA directors who had resisted similar orders from the BBG were fired or forced to resign.
This article was written by FreeMediaOnline.org president Ted Lipien. He was an acting associate VOA director until 2006. Earlier, he had been in charge of VOA broadcasts to Poland and managed broadcasting to Russia and other countries in Eurasia. He was also responsible for placing VOA, RFE/RL and other BBG-funded programs on local radio stations in Russia, Georgia, Afganistan, Bosnia, Iraq, and many other media-at-risk countries. In his recently published book on Pope John Paul II and feminism, he describes Polish secret police and KGB attempts to place spies at the Vatican and to influence broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America.
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