In a Washington Times Op-Ed, a Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting member Ted Lipien warned about a pro-Putin bias in the Voice of America Russian programs. Lipien reported that a highly respected independent journalist in Russia hired by the Broadcasting Board of Governors to evaluate the VOA Russian website concluded last year that it has a pro-Kremlin bias and downplays human rights reporting. BBG executives apparently failed to share the results of this study with BBG members.

Last week, the Voice of America posted on its Russian website an alleged interview with a prominent Russian anti-corruption lawyer, anti-Putin opposition leader and blogger Alexei Navalny but had to remove it and apologize after Navalny said that the interview was “100 percent fake.” Navalny, who is viewed as an enemy by the Kremlin and has been a target of disinformation campaigns by Prime Minister Putin’s supporters, accused the Voice of America of “going nuts” and suggested that all those working for the VOA Russian Service should be let go. BBG Watch website reported that despite issuing an apology, some staffers who were responsible for posting the fake interview have been telling VOA and BBG management that Navalny did give them an interview through an exchange of emails and then lied about it. BBG Watch reported that these staffers are recent arrivals from Russia who were hired as poorly paid contractors to replace experienced journalists who had been retired or pushed out because they were critical of Putin and may have lacked new media skills.

Asked by BBG Watch for a comment, Lipien said that in his long career with the Voice of America he did not recall a single incident where VOA would air a fake interview with a major anti-communist figure like Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, or Vaclav Havel. “Had we done so due to some kind of secret police provocation, of which there were many, we would certainly not accuse these brave men of lying,” Lipien said. The fact that this incident happened and that some VOA Russian Service staffers are still engaged in a whispering campaign of accusing Andrei Navalny of lying, as reported by BBG Watch, is extremely disturbing, Lipien said.

Voice of America director should have called Alexei Navalny and issued a personal apology, which should have been posted on VOA websites in Russian and English, Lipien suggested. The fact that the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported on the fake interview incident in both Russian and English, but the VOA English news website completely ignored the story, points to serious problems with Voice of America journalism under the guidance of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. In many ways, it is now much worse than it was when VOA was still part of the United States Information Agency but VOA journalists knew how to use the VOA Charter to demand that controversial stories be covered, Lipien said.

BBG Watch has been reporting that BBG employees are intimidated by the upper management and are afraid to voice their concerns in public. One unnamed BBG member called employees who contribute anonymously to BBG Watch “cowards.”

What is even more disturbing, Lipien told BBG Watch, is that Broadcasting Board of Governors executives knew for almost a year that the VOA Russian website had a pro-Kremlin bias and downplayed human rights reporting and yet they did not bring the study done by an independent Russian journalist to the immediate attention of BBG members or taken immediate action to investigate such conclusions.

Lipien told BBG Watch that if a highly respected independent journalist in Poland concluded that VOA broadcasts in the 1980s had a pro-Jaruzelski bias, the VOA management at that time as well as the United States Information Agency would not ignore such an evaluation and he would have no doubt lost his job. The fact that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has done nothing suggest that the agency and its management team are in deep crisis, Lipien told BBG Watch. He blamed BBG program marketing and staffing policies for “pushing out great journalists and making the job of those highly talented and dedicated staffers who remain almost impossible as evidenced by the lowest employee and contractor morale in the entire federal government.”

Lipien’s Op-Ed in The Washington Times analyzes how the latest “fake” interview incident happened and attributes it to a general crisis in management at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

LIPIEN: VOA harms Putin opposition in Russia

Faked interviews, lax Web security are signs a shakeup is needed

By Ted Lipien -The Washington Times Wednesday, February 8, 2012 Illustration by John Camejo for The Washington Times

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency in charge of critical U.S. information programs to countries such as Iran, China and Russia, can only be described as a failed enterprise in need of emergency surgery.

Just as the new Voice of America (VOA) director, David Ensor, was praising the VOA Russian Service as a model of innovation during a speech to mark the broadcast’s 70th anniversary, the Russian Service was posting an apology to Alexei Navalny, a famous Russian anti-corruption lawyer, opposition leader and blogger, for publishing an online interview with him, which he described as “100 percent fake.” Mr. Navalny said he never granted this interview (he hasn’t been giving any interviews recently), accused Voice of America of “going nuts,” and suggested that all VOA Russian staff should be let go. The alleged interview, apparently obtained through an exchange of emails, included uncharacteristic attacks on other Russian opposition leaders who are Mr. Navalny’s allies against the Kremlin. No one bothered to confirm whether the answers received by email came from Mr. Navalny. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) also had a similar incident in which someone impersonated another opposition figure in Russia.

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