FreeMediaOnline.org Logo.FreeMediaOnline.org Commentary by Ted Lipien, September 4, 2008, San Francisco – While the White House mobilized in just a few days to put together a $1 billion aid package for Georgia, and President Bush sent Vice President Dick Cheney on a trip to the region, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees all civilian U.S. international broadcasts,  is still in the mode of defending the shutting down of the Voice of America (VOA) radio to Russia and its plan to eliminate eventually all VOA on-air radio to Georgia and Ukraine.

Due to the BBG-ordered cuts, VOA Georgian service has already been reduced to only 4 persons. And in an incredible foreign policy blunder, the BBG ended all VOA radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian troops attacked Georgia. If the war had not started, the BBG would have also cut VOA Georgian radio broadcasts.

Such a glaring example of bad judgment, subsequent inactivity in face of a major crisis, and stubborn defiance has never been seen in more than 60 years of U.S. government-sponsored international broadcasting. By creating the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors in 1998, the White House and the Congress have lost control of U.S. broadcasts to overseas audiences and are now unable to step in quickly to overrule the BBG on questionable program cuts. They also cannot do anything quickly about the Board’s lack of urgent response to a crisis situation.

Before the BBG took over, journalists at the Voice of America would have immediately expanded broadcasts to Russia and Georgia in response to the news emergency and then ask the White House for more money. The BBG took these types of decisions away from the VOA director, who otherwise could have acted quickly and in sync with the Administration and the Congress. In fact, this is what VOA journalists wanted to do this time, but they were told by the VOA management that the BBG considers such requests “a non-starter.”

The Russian broadcasts were taken off the air in late July without any public announcement, most likely to avoid alerting members of Congress. Most Democrats and Republicans in Congress see this move as contributing to Mr. Putin’s campaign to further restrict media freedom in Russia, but so far this year they have been unable to stop the BBG from proceeding with radio programming cuts. (Congress managed to overrule the Bush Administration and the BBG on similar cuts in some previous years, but only with great difficulty and to a limited degree.)

If the White House and the Congress are willing to work overtime to give Georgia $1 billion in  U.S. aid money, it is inconceivable that they would want the Broadcasting Board of Governors to resist restarting VOA radio to Russia and resist plans for a permanent major expansion of VOA Georgian Service, rather than closing it down once the immediate crisis is over.

But politics and special interests may have played a significant and dangerous role in the BBG’s decisions and have contributed to its current paralysis. Senator Biden’s staff was said to have worked with the BBG and its executive director to shut down VOA Russian radio service quickly and without any publicity, so that all U.S. radio broadcasts to Russia would be done from now on by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state.  One of the BBG members, Edward Kaufman, is Senator Biden’s former chief of staff, and  BBG executive director, Jeff Trimble, was formerly acting president of RFE/RL.

The problem is that RFE/RL has a large news bureau in Moscow, which makes its journalists, who are Russian citizens living with their families in Russia, vulnerable to pressure and intimidation by Mr. Putin’s secret police.  The BBG and RFE/RL management try to minimize the existence of this risk, despite the International Federation of Journalists’ report showing that 292 journalists have been killed or have disappeared in Russia since 1990, with only a handful of perpetrators being convicted.

Jeff Trimble and BBG member Jeff Hirschberg, who is a director of U.S.-Russia Business Council, had conducted negotiations with Russian officials on how RFE/RL could continue its radio presence in Russia, including its large bureau in Moscow. I have argued that the BBG has boxed itself into a corner by insisting on keeping a large news bureau in the authoritarian state, in which Mr. Putin’s secret police can freely intimidate, recruit and silence journalists.

I strongly suspect that the BBG members and Senator Biden’s staff are now afraid to make decisions which could undermine their previous commitments and RFE/RL’s operations in Russia.  They are also afraid to admit that their decision to prevent VOA journalists from broadcasting to Russia from the safety of Washington, D.C. was not only foolish but also motivated by politics and special interests. The BBG has shown no  visible concern for keeping U.S. broadcasting resources safe from the clutches of Russia’s secret police. 

Rather than wait for approval from the BBG, which is unlikely to come, Voice of America director Dan Austin should immediately resume and expand VOA Russian broadcasts. He should also make plans to keep VOA Georgian radio broadcasts on the air permanently. The BBG may try to fire him, as they did with previous VOA directors who had disobeyed their orders, but at least he would not be outrageously out of sync with the White House and the Congress. He might even get some of the $1 billion of Georgian aid money for VOA broadcasts.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Jeff Gedmin should likewise expand Russian and Georgian broadcasts. (Both VOA and RFE/RL increased broadcasts to Georgia when the war started but not significantly.) Mr. Gedmin should also ask for money to make sure RFE/RL journalists can work without being exposed to an unacceptable level of dependency on the good will of the secret police and to protect them as much as possible from being pressured and intimidated.

What the BBG should be doing now, and what they should have been doing earlier, is to assist VOA, RFE/RL and their other entities in raising money for U.S. international broadcasting. It was also the BBG’s job to anticipate such events as Russia’s attack on Georgia and to be prepared for them. They should have known that Mr. Putin’s secret police tactics in dealing with journalists would have a major impact on RFE/RL’s operations in Russia and put them at a serious risk. The Broadcasting Board of Governors has failed on all counts and is now hopelessly out of sync with the White House, the Congress, and the mood of the American people.

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