AS RELEASED BY THE WHITE HOUSE, FRI, JULY 17, 12:51 PM EST

Highlights from the President’s Trip to Russia

Posted by Katherine Brandon

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the highlights of the President’s trip to Moscow earlier this month. See images of his trip, and listen to the President speak at the New Economic School. You can read the whole speech here.

END OF WHITE HOUSE MATERIAL

President Barack Obama at the Kremlin

Pro-democracy intellectuals in Russia and political leaders from the former Soviet block countries, who had lived under communism and were exposed to communist propaganda, would probably see the White House video as dangerously naive.

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org, Free Media Online Blog, GovoritAmerika.us, Commentary by Ted Lipien, July 17, 2009, San Francisco — The White House posted on its website today carefully produced video highlights from the President’s visit to Russia, exactly ten days after Barack Obama delivered a major speech on the future of U.S.-Russian relations. The address to the graduates of the New Economic School, which Natalia Bubnova, a public affairs specialist at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, described as a “silent speech,” was not carried live by the Kremlin-controlled national television networks and received relatively little media coverage in Russia, where journalists are increasingly threatened by the Kremlin’s secret police and the local mafia of business and government leaders. Many Russian journalists have been murdered by unknown assailants, and the few remaining semi-independent media outlets practice self-censorship to protect themselves from official reprisals.

But if the White House video was designed to inform and inspire the Russian public about the President’s commitment to a new start in U.S.-Russian relations, it was not only released ten days too late to be of any news value to journalists and media consumers. It also came without a Russian translation, and its overly optimistic message presented in the style of old Soviet era propaganda films would have been inappropriate for the skeptical Russian audience. Barack Obama would have done much better in communicating his message of change to the Russian people if the White House handlers had arranged during his visit for a series of extensive live interviews with audience participation on national TV networks in Russia and had insisted that his speech also be carried live on the same television channels, which are controlled by the Kremlin. When it comes to overcoming media control in Russia, some of the Cold War diplomatic tactics are still needed.

The limited media outreach during the Moscow visit was in sharp contrast with the White House public relations effort to publicize the President’s earlier speech in Cairo, Egypt, in which Barack Obama called for a new beginning in America’s relationship with Muslim communities around the world. The Cairo speech was released by the White House in Arabic and other foreign languages, both in text and in video, as soon as it was delivered. The media blitz after the Cairo speech seems to have been, however, a one-time effort, which the Obama Administration seems not capable of sustaining due to a severe shortage of experienced public diplomacy and media specialists.

Other than the lack of proper structures and resources, the public diplomacy experts at the White House and the State Department also seem to have some difficulty realizing that their focus should be on providing timely and objective information in foreign languages to local media outlets and media consumers rather than taking full ten days to produce a short upbeat video, as the one released today, that looks and sounds much more like a government-generated propaganda film of World War II and Cold War vintage. Had the video been released immediately after the speech, Russian journalists may have been able at least to take advantage of its outstanding visual composition and provide an appropriate text and translation. Ten days later, in its English-language version, it is largely unusable. Its release is now also counterproductive, as its core message has been overtaken by recent events in Russia and the region.

Normally, the Voice of America (VOA), the U.S. government-funded international broadcaster, would have carried live a major presidential speech in Moscow and provided a Russian translation. VOA would have also offered live commentaries by independent U.S. experts. These would be broadcast on satellite radio and television from VOA studios in Washington, D.C. Some of the programs might have also been replayed live or broadcast later on those stations in Russia that would still be willing to defy the Russian secret police and maintain an affiliate relationship with VOA. The VOA Russian broadcast would have also been transmitted on short-wave radio frequencies, which cover great distances and are not as easy to jam as a single website, although they attract a very limited number of listeners unless there is a major crisis and a government blockade or heavy censorship of all other media.

Unfortunately, the Federal agency in charge of the Voice of America, the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), terminated in 2008 all live VOA Russian-language radio and television programs, both high-tech satellite and low-tech short-wave, just 12 days before Russia’s sudden military attack on the Republic of Georgia over a territorial dispute. Since then, the BBG has refused urgent pleas from VOA journalists to resume these broadcasts as a response to the last summer’s Russian-Georgian war and the still deteriorating human rights and media situation in Russia.

The Voice of America Russian Service was left only with a poorly-designed and unprotected website and a 30 minute Monday through Friday pre-recorded radio segment on a weak AM station in Moscow, which was restored only after protests from media freedom advocates over a period of many months. To make things much worse, during Barack Obama’s historic first presidential visit to Russia, the Voice of America website went blank for at least two full days as a result of a suspected North Korean cyber attack. The website was back online after President Obama left Russia, but even then the audio program on the web was not updated for over a week. The BBG/VOA web team was not aware of the problem for several days. Instead of a recording of President Obama’s speech with a Russian translation, visitors to the VOA website were offered a week-old audio newscast. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), another U.S. taxpayer-funded international broadcaster also managed by the BBG, did cover the Obama visit, but RFE/RL is based in Prague, the Czech Republic, and in Moscow, and its Russian speaking reporters do not specialize in analyzing U.S. foreign policy from an American perspective. RFE/RL reporters based in Russia are also vulnerable to threats from the Russian secret police.

Even if the Voice of America website were available during President Obama’s visit to Russia, it would not have included full texts in Russian, video, and audio of all the presidential speeches delivered in Moscow. BBG officials responsible for terminating live VOA Russian radio and TV programs had also directed the Russian Service to focus their energies on producing short and entertaining news stories for the web in order to drive more visitors to the VOA website.

English and Russian texts of most of President Obama’s speeches in Moscow — but not audio or video files — were posted rather quickly on the State Department’s news and information website, America.gov, and on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Summaries of President Obama’s speeches and links to full texts were also available on GovoritAmerika.us, a Russian-language news analysis website created by volunteers associated with the San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit FreeMediaOnline.org. Some of them are former VOA journalists who are concerned about media censorship in Russia and the restrictions imposed by the BBG on the Voice of America Russian broadcasts.

One of the drawbacks of waiting ten days to produce a video from a presidential trip is that new events can quickly overtake the video’s message. The same is true for producing a video that is much more oriented toward promoting a particular propaganda theme rather than offering factual information in a timely manner.

The White House video was heavily focused on hailing a new beginning in the bilateral relationship between Washington and Moscow and making a clean break with the Cold War models. Unfortunately for the public relations specialists who produced it, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev directly challenged their theme and President Obama when he visited South Ossetia earlier this week and said that Moscow would continue to back the breakaway Georgian region, which Russia recognized as independent despite strong objections from the United States and most other nations. Then, as a further sign that the situation in Russia was not moving in the direction desired by the Obama Administration, a respected human rights activist, Natalya Estemirova, was abducted and brutally murdered in Chechnya. Both the U.S. State Department spokesman and the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, have condemned the murder. The White House has also condemned the killing, calling it “especially shocking” that it happened a week after President Barack Obama met with activists, including those from the human rights group Memorial, of which Ms. Estemirova was a member.

Because of these events in Russia, this may have not been the best time to release the already much outdated video. Also, a group of pro-American intellectuals and political leaders from former Central and East European countries, including former Polish president Lech Walesa and former Czech president Waclav Havel, has just published an open letter to the Obama Administration, warning President Obama of Russia’s return to what they call a “revisionist power pursuing a 19th century agenda with 21st century tactics.” The letter refers to “nervousness in our capitals” over energy blockades, media manipulation and other methods Russia has used to undermine the region’s ties with Western Europe and the United States.

The White House media team may deserve some credit for much more timely postings of official photographs, texts of presidential speeches and at least some videos during President Obama’s first visit to Moscow. After his initial meeting in London with President Medvedev in April 2009, the official photograph of the two presidents was not made available on the White House website for several days. The website was only infrequently updated during the entire U.S. presidential trip to Europe last April.

President Obama has a highly talented team of photographers and web designers lead by Pete Souza, but his public affairs and public diplomacy advisors seem to be lacking critical journalistic skills and are suffering from what could only be described as too much of a hero worship to be able to produce timely and credible materials for the media and news consumers. (They even put “hero” as part of the name for web images with President Obama, which anybody visiting the White House website can see by right-clicking on these photos in order to download and save them.)

These White House advisors, if they are indeed advising the president, clearly lack the journalistic, public diplomacy and foreign policy experience to find the right balance in describing and presenting his message to Russia and the rest of the world. They are, unfortunately, repeating the mistakes of the Bush White House by confusing U.S. domestic political campaign advertising with public diplomacy abroad. Pro-democracy intellectuals in Russia and political leaders from the former Soviet block countries, who had lived under communism and were exposed to communist propaganda, would probably see the White House video as dangerously naive.

Perhaps then, it’s not so bad after all that the video with the highlights of President Obama’s trip to Russia was released several days too late and without foreign language captions. Hopefully for the Obama Administration, it will not receive much publicity in the region formerly dominated by the Soviet Union and still feeling threatened by Russia’s autocratic leaders. If it does, it will only contribute to the nervousness about the U.S. policy and intentions.

About Ted Lipien

Ted Lipien

Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was also a regional BBG media marketing manager responsible for placement of U.S. government-funded radio and TV programs on stations in Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in Eurasia. In the 1980’s he was in charge of VOA radio broadcasts to Poland during the communist regime’s crackdown on the Solidarity labor union and oversaw the development of VOA television news programs to Ukraine and Russia.

Wojtyla's Women by Ted Lipien

He is also author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church” (O-Books – June 2008). The book, which describes Pope John Paul II’s views on feminism, also includes evidence of the importance of Western radio broadcasts during Karol Wojtyla’s life in communist-ruled Poland and in the first ten years of his papacy. The book also has references to the efforts of the KGB and other communist intelligence services to place spies in the Vatican and to influence reporting by journalists covering the Polish pope.

About FreeMediaOnline.org

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo

FreeMediaOnline.org is a San Francisco-based nonprofit which supports media freedom worldwide.

About GovoritAmerika.us

GovoritAmerika.us - US-Russia Multisource News Analysis/ГоворитАмерика.us - Всесторонний Анализ Новостей из СШАIn December 2008, FreeMediaOnline.org launched a Russian-language web site — GovoritAmerika.us ГоворитАмерика.us — which includes summaries of some of the more serious news and commentaries from multiple U.S. government and nongovernment sources. According to Ted Lipien, the web site is designed to compensate for the loss of information from the United States for Russian-speaking audiences due to program and budget cuts implemented by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The web site, which includes links to VOA Russian Service news reports, is also designed to counter the BBG marketing strategy that has forced broadcasting entities to focus on entertainment programming and to avoid hard-hitting political reporting that might prevent local rebroadcasting or offend local officials. GovoritAmerika.us web site was developed without any public funding and is managed by volunteers. It is also hosted on LiveJournal.com.

BBG officials initially had told the VOA Russian Service that their requests to resume radio broadcasts were a “non-starter” even after Russia invaded Georgia. Only after weeks of protests, including reporting by FreeMediaOnline.org, the BBG finally allowed VOA to produce a short audio program for the Internet, updated only Monday through Friday. This program is rather difficult to find on the VOA website. We made it available for easier access and listening on the GovoritAmerika.us website managed by FreeMediaOnline.org.

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