As Russia continues its military action against Georgia, the U.S. broadcasting station responsible for communicating with foreign audiences in times of crisis, has been prevented by a group of bipartisan political appointees from reaching out to the Russian-speaking audiences in the war-torn area with on-air radio news from Washington. The same political board had tried earlier to eliminate the Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Georgia and Uzbekistan but failed to carry out its plans due to opposition in U.S. Congress and protests from human rights and media freedom NGOs, including FreeMediaOnline.org.

Only days before the Russian military forces attacked Georgia, the Voice of America – a U.S. government-funded international broadcasting station created in 1942 to provide uncensored news, explain U.S. foreign policy and tell America’s story abroad  – ceased its on-air Russian-language radio broadcasts without any public announcement. The decision to stop Russian-language VOA radio broadcasts was made not by the Voice of America broadcasters and management, who strongly objected to the idea, but  by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which controls VOA and its budget. The BBG made its decision in defiance of appeals from members Congress and despite numerous warnings from the Voice of America journalists, foreign policy experts and human rights NGOs about the dangers of such a move, considering Russia’s aggressive policies toward its neighbors and the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent media. Many of the inhabitants in the war-torn region of Georgia do not speak Georgian and rely on the Russian-language media for news and information. In times of previous political and military crises, VOA radio broadcasts have been effective in providing uncensored and balanced news and explaining U.S. foreign policy.  Russian is also one of the primary languages in Central Asia, where media censorship and human rights abuses are also common. The BBG had announced earlier that it would also like to eliminate the Voice of America’s Georgian Service, but last Friday it allowed VOA Georgian Service to double its broadcasts from 30 minutes to one hour daily. FreeMediaOnline.org has learned, however, that the BBG had rejected VOA staff appeals for resuming  the Russian-language radio broadcasts, describing such pleas from VOA journalists as “a non-starter,” and remains adamant in its refusal to reconsider its previous decision despite the outbreak of major hostilities in the region.

The agency responsible for taking VOA Russian radio programs off the air shortly before the Russian military intervention in Georgia, is a bipartisan body that oversees U.S. government-funded civilian broadcasting for international audiences. In addition to the Voice of America, the BBG manages Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa (broadcasting in Arabic), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL – broadcasting mostly to the countries of the former Soviet Union), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Radio and TV Marti (broadcasting to Cuba). The BBG members are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is an ex-officio member of the BBG. There are currently only six BBG members, although the legislation, which created the BBG, provides for nine members. Apparently, not all BBG members were in favor of taking VOA Russian radio programs off the air, but the members who want to privatize most of the U.S. international broadcasting and exercise direct control over programming decisions were in the majority.

The Voice of America is unique among the broadcasting entities managed by the BBG, as it is the only one which by law is required to explain U.S. foreign policy, present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies, and offer a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions. In recent years, however, the BBG outsourced many of VOA programs to semi-private entities under its control, claiming that they are less bureaucratic and better able to attract larger audiences.

According to Ted Lipien, a former manager of VOA worldwide news operations and current president of FreeMediaOnline.org, a nonprofit organization working to support press freedom, the BBG has ignored the Voice of America’s Congressional mandate, which guarantees VOA’s journalistic independence but also makes it responsible for representing America to foreign audiences.  By slashing VOA budgets and cutting VOA programs in order to support semi-private entities, such as Alhurra and Radio Sawa, the BBG members wanted to employ more non-U.S.-trained journalists, whom they consider better qualified for the so-called “surrogate broadcasting.” The BBG also wanted these entities to broadcast news and entertainment programs that audiences agree with, thus increasing their reach.  While government mandates of any kind are rarely good for media freedom, Lipien pointed out that lacking a strong legal mandate such as the VOA Charter, Alhurra, Radio Sawa, and Radio Liberty have all been accused of airing programs in which racist and xenophobic views were prominently featured without sufficient balance.  See: Window on Eurasia: Moscow Rights Group Protests Radio Liberty’s Giving Airtime to Extremists by Dr. Paul Goble. According to Lipien, a Congressional mandate expressed in the Voice of America Charter has resulted in greater journalistic freedom for VOA broadcasters and fewer abuses than the BBG-preferred model of outsourcing U.S. international broadcasting to semi-private entities, which even the BBG is unable to monitor and control.

Lipien said that the approach taken by the BBG may  in some cases be good for increasing audience size (although VOA’s combined radio and TV audience in Russia was reported to be larger than Radio Liberty’s audience), but this approach is not always best for media freedom and can be decisively dangerous, especially in broadcasting to Russia.  The Russian secret police under the control of Vladimir Putin has effectively silenced independent broadcast media in Russia. Lipien said that the BBG should seriously consider whether the majority of Radio Liberty journalists, who are Russian citizens and work and live in Russia with their families, can be immune to pressure and intimidation. They should also ask whether under the pressure of secret police and domestic Russian public opinion formed by the Kremlin-controlled media, Radio Liberty journalists based in Russia can accurately present U.S. foreign policy and American opinions. According to public opinion polls, Russia’s military intervention in Georgia enjoys wide support among the Russians.

Ignoring appeals from members of Congress and numerous other warnings, the  bipartisan BBG decided that only the semi-private Radio Liberty will continue radio broadcasts in Russian, many of which originate in Moscow, while the Voice of America, based in Washington, will offer news in Russian only on its website. The BBG cut VOA  Russian-language radio programs in late July when most members of Congress were away from Washington. This was done without any formal announcement in an apparent effort to limit bad publicity. Lipien said that the BBG completely ignored signs of the Kremlin’s aggressive intentions toward Russia’s weaker neighbors, murders of independent journalists, and relentless anti-American propaganda by government-controlled Russian media. If there should be a medal for bad timing and making wrong programming decisions prior to major political and military crises, the BBG surely deserves such a medal for ordering the termination of VOA on-air radio programs to Russia just days before the Russian military intervention in Georgia, as well as for its earlier decisions calling for reductions of radio programs to Tibet and cutting broadcasts to the largely Muslim populations of Central Asia, Lipien said. The head of FreeMediaOnline.org called on the Broadcasting Board of Governors to stop ignoring the opinions of many members of Congress and human rights organizations and immediately restore the Voice of America on-air radio broadcasts in Russian and to promise not to make any more cuts to VOA programs, including Georgian, without specific Congressional authorization. Lipien also called for  holding Congressional hearings to find out how the Broadcasting Board of Governors had arrived at its decisions to terminate or reduce VOA broadcasts to Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and a number of other media-at-risk countries. Lipien said that such hearings might prevent the BBG from further damaging U.S. support for press freedom. If the American people knew how their ability to communicate with critical foreign audiences through the Voice of America is being undermined by the BBG, they would demand that such sensitive decisions be left to the U.S. Congress and the next Administration rather than the current group of individuals who wanted to eliminate the Voice of America broadcasts in Georgian and who stopped VOA radio broadcasts in Russian just before the Russian military attack on Georgia, Lipien said.  

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