by Ted Lipien

FreeMediaOnline.org Free Media Online, Dublin, CA, November 28, 2006 — The Voice of Russia‘s (VOR) English web site has ignored the poisoning death in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who became a strong critic of President Putin. The state-funded radio station, a successor to Radio Moscow which had broadcast internationally during the Cold War, has been silent in recent years about a number of controversial news developments that proved to be highly embarrassing for President Putin.

While international media are full of stories about Mr. Litvinenko’s poisoning, the Voice of Russia’s English web site has been focusing instead on political scandals in the United States and Great Britain. The web site has not been posting articles about current political issues in Russia that might include critical comments about President Putin’s policies.

Asked at the Russia-EU summit meeting in Helsinki last week about Mr. Litvinenko’s poisoning and the recent murder in Moscow of an independent Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Mr. Putin said that it would be unfortunate to endlessly politicize these issues or stigmatize only Russia for these kinds of murders. “The same thing happens in many other countries,” Mr. Putin said. [Link]

The Voice of Russia also did not provide any in-depth coverage on its English web site about Anna Politkovskaya’s murder. Her reporting on human rights violations in Czechnya angered the Kremlin. 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. Reporters Without Borders have also called for a full and impartial investigation into Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder.

The most recent Voice of Russia web site postings are more reminiscent of the Cold War-type political analysis of what is wrong with the United States rather than providing detached reporting on current events in Russia. They include such topics as political corruption in the U.S. Congress, NATO’s apparent expansion into protection of energy supplies viewed as potentially threatening for Russia, a call for the U.S. to avoid confrontation with Moscow by advancing common interests, an alleged U.S. mass media propaganda in support of the war in Iraq in line with the interests of the American elites, and other “continuing failures” in U.S. foreign policy.

In a pattern that is also reminiscent of the Cold War Soviet media treatment of domestic Russian news stories, most of the coverage of on Voice of Russia’s English web site deals with noncontroversial issues with references to history rather than to any current social or political problems. Of the nine stories listed on the Voice of Russia home page on November 28, only two dealt specifically with Russian events. One of the stories described the birth of the Russian empire in the 17th century as a response to threats and invasions from the West. The second report dealt with the growing real estate and antique purchases in Britain by Russia’s rich businessmen.

In contrast to the Voice of Russia’s reporting, Moscow’s newly created 24-hour English-language satellite television news channel, Russia Today, has covered the Litvinenko story at some length. While it reported on the Western media allegations of possible links between the poisoning of Mr. Litvinenko and the FSB Russian security service, the successor to the KGB, Russia Today focused largely on challenging such reports as unsubstantiated speculations.

On September 24, Russia Today carried an exclusive interview with a former KGB agent who had met with Mr. Litvinenko in London and has been linked in Western media reports to his death. The agent and now businessmen Andrey Lugovoy denied in the Russia Today interview that he had anything to do with the poisoning of Mr. Putin’s critic. [Link]

The Russian international TV channel with news programming in English employs a number of Western-trained journalists who try to be objective in their reporting. Russia Today has a much more balanced coverage of international news than the Voice of Russia radio programs and avoids using anti-American polemical tone typical of VOR reports. But the television channel, which now can be viewed in Europe and in North America on satellite and cable, most of the time also avoids reporting comments critical of President Putin’s clampdown on press freedom and political liberties in Russia.

The Bush Administration has no plans to launch a taxpayer-funded 24-hour international TV news channel in English similar to Russia Today. The Voice of America, the main taxpayer-funded U.S. international broadcaster, can offer less than 30 minutes of television news programming a day in English excluding weekends. Most of new government funding for U.S. international broadcasting goes to supporting the 24-hour Arabic television channel Alhurra TV.

The White House and the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees all civilian U.S. international broadcasting operations, have decided earlier this year to eliminate all Voice of America radio broadcasts in Russian in order to support further expansion of TV, radio and Internet programs to the Muslim world. [Link] This decision has been strongly criticized by press freedom supporters in Russia and in the United States as a major blunder in light of President Putin’s clampdown on the Russian media. Some BBG members and Congressional leaders are now working on trying to reverse this decision.

The BBG has also decided to eliminate most of VOA English radio programs for international audiences. At the same time, international broadcasters in other major countries, including Russia and China, have been expanding their English-language radio and television broadcasts. Al Jazeera, the highly popular Arab satellite television news channel, has recently launched a 24-hour television news program, Al Jazeera English.

FreeMediaOnline.org, a California-based nonprofit organization which supports free media worldwide, has called the 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.” FreeMediaOnline.org has also criticized the planned reductions in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian programs.

Some independent stations in Russia still use VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news programs in Russian. Their number, however, has declined from well over a 100 a few years ago to less than a dozen as a result of intimidation from Russian security services. A manager of a regional radio station in Russia which used to carry VOA programs said recently that cooperation with Western broadcasters has become too dangerous under Mr. Putin’s rule. Stations which continue such partnerships risk losing their broadcast licenses or are accused of engaging in financial irregularities.

Last week, TV3, a Russian network which carried a weekly VOA Russian television news magazine, has stopped using the Washington-produced program. At the same time, Russia Today is expanding placement of its news programs on satellite and cable channels in Europe and North America without any politically-motivated restrictions.

Voice of Russia with its Cold War-style programming has been less successful in placing its reports on radio stations in the West, but the Russian state radio broadcaster has not encountered any political obstacles in seeking affiliates in Western countries.

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