by Ted Lipien

FreeMediaOnline.org Free Media Online, San Francisco, February 14, 2007 — Coming as a good news for Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s authoritarian ruler and suppressor of press freedom, the Bush Administration’s federal budget proposal for FY2008 has revived plans for closing down Voice of America (VOA) Uzbek radio service. [Link to BBG announcement… ]

This is the second time in recent years the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) – a bipartisan body in charge of U.S. international broadcasts – is trying to eliminate VOA radio programs to Uzbekistan. The BBG had stopped VOA Uzbek radio programs in August 2004, but the pressure from the U.S. Congress and human rights groups forced the BBG to resume them in June 2005.

With apparent approval from the White House, the BBG is again trying to end VOA radio presence in Uzbekistan. In addition to VOA Uzbek radio programs, the BBG is also planning to eliminate or reduce U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasts to Kazakhstan, Russia, Tibet and China — countries viewed as major violators of media freedom and freedom of expression. Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Kazakhstan’s authoritarian ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev and China’s leader Hu Jintao have been all declared “Predators of Press Freedom” by the Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF). [Link to RSF announcement… ]

FreeMediaOnline.org, a California-based nonprofit group founded to support freedom of the press worldwide, described these proposed cuts and reductions in U.S. international broadcasting as a “gift to dictators and suppressors of press freedom.” FreeMediaOnline.org believes that “this lack of consistency sends a terrible signal to defenders of freedom and courageous journalists around the world. Some of them, like independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, paid with their lives for exposing human rights violations and participating in VOA Russian radio programs, which the White House and the BBG plan to eliminate.”

According to the BBG, these program cuts are necessary to fund expansion of U.S. broadcasts to Iran and to other major Muslim countries and regions. Critics have pointed out, however, that there are many other noncritical programs within the U.S. international broadcasting bureaucracy controlled by the BBG. Reducing these support programs instead could easily pay for new programming to the Middle East and the much needed enhancement of programs to countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and China.

A former VOA official told FreeMediaOnline.org that the White House and the BBG have been outsmarted by the ex-KGB spy President Putin and former communists who had became authoritarian rulers in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These rulers forced local stations to stop their cooperation with VOA and RFE/RL. The BBG then used research data showing dropping audience figures for VOA and RFE/RL in these countries to justify its decisions to cut programs rather than try to help these services reach their audience through improved program delivery and innovative use of the Internet.

The BBG has also shown it has an extremely bad sense of timing — yet another proof that its members, both Republicans and Democrats, have little experience in dealing with dictators. The first time the BBG announced its plans for eliminating VOA radio broadcasts to Russia was just before President Putin’s media regulators forced most Russian stations to drop rebroadcasts of VOA and RFE/RL programs and shortly before the still unsolved murder of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. While the Kremlin was clamping down on independent stations in Russia, some BBG members were still trying to negotiate with the Putin government to allow U.S.-funded broadcasters greater access to the Russian media market. The BBG’s second announcement about Russian radio program cuts came just before President Putin launched a major ideological attack on the United States in a recent speech in Munich. U.S. experts familiar with Russia have described Mr. Putin’s speech as a clever propaganda move designed to deflect criticism of his anti-democratic policies.

The Bush Administration and the BBG also miscalculated in betting that Uzbekistan would move toward democracy and closer relations with the U.S. The assumption was that Uzbekistan would not need VOA programs that offended its leader who had allowed American military bases to operate on his country’s territory. But after VOA Uzbek radio broadcasts had been taken off the air in 2004, Uzbek troops fired into a crowd of protesters in an attempt to squash civil unrest in the eastern city of Andijan, Uzbekistan in May 2005. Estimates of those killed in the Andijan massacre ranged from between 187 and 1,000 people. The Karimov government blamed the protest on Islamic terrorists — a claim rejected by international human rights organizations, the EU and the U.S. Mr. Karimov also suspected American and British governments of promoting the protests through the work of Western-supported NGOs. With encouragement from President Putin, Mr. Karimov told the U.S. to remove its military bases from Uzbekistan.

Administration officials and the Broadcasting Board of Governors took the easy way out by rewarding dictators and betraying defenders of press freedom in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tibet, China, and in other media-at-risk countries and regions. The U.S. Congress should refuse to accept these cuts and demand from the White House and the BBG a consistent U.S. international broadcasting strategy in support of freedom.

FreeMediaOnline.org is ready to offer informational assistance to every independent journalist and media outlet working to support freedom of the press and democracy. For more information about this article or FreeMediaOnline.org send an email to contact@freemediaonline.org or call 1-415-793-1642.

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