by Ted Lipien
FreeMediaOnline.org Free Media Online, Dublin, CA — On November 14, 2006, Russia Today TV Channel announced it went on air on the largest European English-language platform, SKY. [President Putin has recently used the discrimination argument as an excuse for his government’s clampdown on Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) rebroadcasting partnerships with radio and television stations in Russia. Putin’s media advisors may have suggested to him that Western regulators discriminate against Russian broadcasters to hide the fact that programs like Russia Today have a limited commercial appeal to cable and satellite television operators in the West. Despite the lack of any evidence to support their claim, the Kremlin advisors apparently convinced Putin that this is a political issue which can be used to justify preventing publicaly-funded Western broadcasters from distributing their programs to stations in Russia.
FreeMediaOnline.org, a California-based nonprofit organization supporting media freedom worldwide, described President Putin’s claim as a false excuse for deliberately targeting independent broadcasters in Russia, including those who want to offer American and other Western news programs to their audiences. President Putin has brought under government control all major domestic television and radio channels in Russia.
Russia Today channel employs Western-trained journalists who produce professional and generally objective coverage of international news. Despite its name, however, Russia Today provides almost no coverage of controversial political and social changes inside of Russia, especially those relating to President Putin’s decisions and actions.
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based international nongovernmental organization, has named President Putin “Predator of Press Freedom” for his actions aimed at bringing independent broadcasting in Russia under government control.
Russia’s state owned international radio broadcaster, Voice of Russia, also avoids coverage of controversial domestic political issues while reporting extensively on political problems and scandals in Western countries, especially in the United States and Great Britain. As it had been the case under communism, domestic coverage on Voice of Russia and Russia Today often deals with historical events which are too distant to be controversial. Both channels also provide cultural programming of a noncontroversial nature.
In addition to being on SKY, Russia Today has plans for placement on the largest European pay TV platforms by the end of the year. The Russian television program is also becoming available to viewers on satellite television and some cable systems in the United States.
In the meantime, due to pressures from the Russian authorities, the number of radio and television stations using Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian-language programs in Russia has been reduced from over a hundred in recent years to less than a dozen.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan body which manages U.S. international broadcasting using Congressionally approved funding, protested the Russian government’s actions against VOA and RFE/RL affiliates through U.S. diplomatic channels but did not issue a public statement. Some BBG members and staffers have had business contacts in Russia, but it is unclear whether these contacts had any impact on their optimistic assessments of President Putin’s intentions and the future of Russian media.
Earlier this year, the BBG took at face value assurances of Russian officials that U.S. government-funded broadcasting partnerships with Russian stations will not be restricted. Acting partly on these promises, which had been given to a BBG member in meetings with Russian officials in Moscow, the Board decided to eliminate all VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts and to reduce RFE/RL shortwave radio transmissions to Russia. When these cuts are implemented, VOA would only broadcast a 30 minute daily television news program in Russian. Maintaining an audience for this program in Russia will be highly dependent on rebroadcasting arrangements fully controlled by the Russian government.
While the Russian officials were reassuring the BBG of their good intentions, regulators and security services were already busy putting pressure on stations to end their partnerships with American and other Western broadcasters. More than 80 percent of Russian stations reluctantly terminated VOA and RFE/RL news rebroadcasts to avoid losing their broadcast licenses and expose themselves to other forms of harassment by the authorities. At the same time, Russia Today was successfully negotiating rebroadcasting arrangements with satellite and cable systems in Western Europe and in North America.
Despite its inability to tackle controversial domestic political issues, Russia Today program is technically far superior to what the Voice of America Television can offer its English-speaking audiences. Russia Today has an extensive network of highly-trained international correspondents who provide video reports for the 24 hour daily television program. VOA television can barely offer enough video material for a 30 minute news program Monday through Friday and has practically no English-speaking correspondents outside of the United States who can send in video reports on a regular basis. Russia Today also has a professionally designed web site which is visually far more attractive and easier to navigate than what the VOA Television has been able to offer.
As other international broadcasters expand their English-language radio and television programming, the BBG has been focused almost entirely on beefing up coverage in Arabic and Persian to the Middle East while cutting budgets and programs to other areas, including Russia. Press freedom activists have been warning the BBG about the dangers of funding politically expedient programs to produce short-term gains while abandoning its long-term commitment to supporting media freedom and independent journalism in strategically important countries like Russia and China.
FreeMediaOnline.org called the BBG decision to end all Voice of America Russian-language radio programs “a blow to media freedom and a gift to dictators and authoritarian regimes throughout Eurasia.” Some BBG members have been known to oppose VOA and RFE/RL program cuts. The BBG, however, has been unable to persuade the Bush Administration that more money is needed for U.S. international broadcasting to non-Muslim countries to keep pace with similar efforts by Russia, China, and the Arab satellite television news channel Al Jazeera. Neither Republican nor Democratic BBG members questioned the single-focus approach of expanding broadcasting relating only to the war on terror at the expense of long-term goals and program development.
With most of their attention focused on managing day-to-day programming to the Middle East, the BBG failed to react to the expansion of Russian broadcasting in Europe and North America by demanding equal treatment for Western broadcasters in Russia. The BBG also did not publicly challenge President Putin’s claim that Russian broadcasters are discriminated against in the West.
One of the latest BBG decisions was to announce drastic reductions in Voice of America English-language radio programs. The BBG has no plans to launch a 24-hour Voice of America English television program and has not asked the Administration for money to fund such a major project. This week, Al Jazeera, the most popular Arab-language satellite television channel in the Middle East, has launched its 24-hour Al Jazeera English news program using Western-trained anchors and reporters. [ Link to related FreeMediaOnline.org report... ]