UPDATE Since we published this story, ProPublica.org reported that the VOA program cuts sought by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) have met with strong opposition in the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and may be reversed, although it is not clear whether any Congressional action will come soon enough to prevent BBG from implementing its program cutting plans. U.S. lawmakers objected especially to the planned cuts in VOA radio and television programs to Russia.

ProPublica.org reporter Paul Kiel wrote that “the committee specifically raised concern about VOA’s plans to cut its radio and TV services to Russia, ‘where freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary.'”

FreeMediaOnline.org has learned the Voice of America (VOA) management informed some of its staff and its few remaining broadcasting partners in Russia that U.S. Government-funded VOA’s Russian-language radio programs will end as of July 26. VOA television programs to Russia have already been reduced and face further cuts in September. VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts have been on the air since shortly after World War II, helping to undermine the Soviet monopoly on information during the Cold War, and more recently trying to bring alternative viewpoints to Russian-speaking audiences exposed to media censorship and Kremlin’s anti-American and anti-Western propaganda.

In an apparent effort to limit public awareness of this move and the expected negative publicity it might generate at the time of increasing media censorship and silencing of independent journalists in Russia, neither the Voice of America nor the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan body which oversees VOA, has posted an official announcement on their websites about the termination of VOA Russian-language broadcasts. According to VOA sources contacted by FreeMediaOnline.org, VOA Russian-language content will be presented only on the VOA website but may include some video reports. Critics believe, however, that the website is unlikely to have the same serious political reporting and in-depth discussions of media freedom and human rights issues in Russia as those generated in live VOA radio and television programs.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has both Democratic and Republican members appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, has been widely criticized by some NGOs, U.S. media and members of Congress for its short-sighted decisions on programs cuts and its inability to prevent serious editorial mistakes and waste of public funds at the semi-private broadcasting entities it oversees. This criticism was particularly directed against Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television, both broadcasting in Arabic. BBG also oversees Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA). Both of these radio stations are also semi-private entities funded by Congress unlike VOA, which is a U.S. government broadcasting station. Journalistic independence of VOA broadcasters is, however, protected by law passed by Congress in 1976. The same law also requires VOA journalists to offer balanced and objective reporting.

BBG officials insist that its semi-private entities, which also include Radio and TV Marti, practice the same kind of independent and objective journalism as VOA. Privately, they also say that these entities are more adaptable to programming and technological changes and often more effective than VOA in attracting audiences. In recent years, these outsourced broadcasts, however, have faced more frequent charges of biased reporting and mismanagement than VOA programs. VOA insiders claim that if semi-private broadcasters can sometimes perform better than VOA, it is due to BBG’s practice of slashing VOA’s budgets and programs and diverting money from VOA to support these entities.

The strategic plans developed by BBG members and their long-term assessment of media developments in various countries have also come under criticism. In previous years, they had made a number of decisions which later proved highly embarrassing to them and the Bush Administration. Their most recent program cutting moves included an attempt to reduce Tibetan-language radio programs despite severe media restrictions and censorship in Tibet and in China. BBG members had to reverse their decision after the Chinese government’s crackdown on pro-autonomy demonstrations in Tibet earlier this year. “The fact that Tibet was originally scheduled to be reduced and is suddenly not on the chopping block is a good indication of why it’s not a good idea to eliminate these languages,” said Myrna Whitworth, a 28-year veteran and former acting director of VOA. She was quoted by ProPublica.org, a nonprofit organization which supports independent investigative journalism. In addition to Russian-language radio and TV broadcasts, BBG also has been trying to cut radio broadcasts in Ukrainian, Serbian, Hindi, Macedonian, Bosnian and Georgian.

Despite its bipartisan membership and a mandate to preserve independence of U.S. international broadcasting, BBG has been generally supportive of the Bush Administration’s efforts to eliminate various Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) programs in order to finance the expansion of Alhurra Television and other TV and radio broadcasts considered important for the war on terror. After initially approving the funding of these broadcasts, some members of Congress have begun to question the narrow focus of the administration’s and BBG’s plans for U.S. international broadcasting targeting mostly the Muslim world at the expense of programming to strategically important countries such as China and Russia. Outsourced to semi-private entities by BBG, Arabic-languages programs have been criticized for having a low-level of intellectual content and wasting taxpayers’ money. 

Tish King, a spokeswoman for Voice of America, was quoted by ProPublica.org as saying that the language services cuts are the result of “painful decisions” that reflect a focus on “places where, based on research, we can be most effective.” In 2007, Congress disagreed, however, with BBG’s plans and restored funding for language services which the administration and BBG wanted to eliminate. According to King, this time around Congress is on board with the cuts. ProPublica.org also quoted her as saying that the cuts will be effective in September. According to Tish, the cuts do not mean that U.S. government-funded broadcasts to some countries will stop altogether. She pointed out that Radio Liberty broadcasts in Russian will continue, and VOA Russian-language website will remain.

Ted Lipien, a former acting associate director of VOA and current president of FreeMediaOnline.org, a nonprofit which supports independent journalism worldwide, said that despite these assurances, eliminating live VOA radio and television broadcasts to Russia shows a certain lack of strategic thinking on the part of the Bush Administration and the BBG. Anyone familiar with the political situation in Russia would see murders of Russian journalists, government takeovers of media outlets, and intimidation of broadcasters using VOA and Radio Liberty programs as a serious threat to freedom of expression, Lipien said.

Lipien also said that it is naïve for BBG members to assume that Radio Liberty based in Prague, the Czech Republic, can make up for the loss of VOA programs or that a Russian-language VOA website will have the same impact without live radio and television programs to generate news content and without alternative delivery channels. Having a large news bureau in Moscow, Radio Liberty is vulnerable to intimidation by Russia’s secret police and intelligence services, which had already forced nearly all stations using VOA and Radio Liberty programs to take them off the air. [Read Radio Liberty Russian managers put a positive spin on Putin’s comments about the murder of a pro-democracy journalist for more information about how difficult it is for Radio Liberty journalists living and working in Russia to protect their independence and objectivity.]

BBG’s decision to eliminate live VOA Russian radio and TV broadcasts represents a major victory for the campaign against free media in Russia started by former president Vladimir Putin, who is an ex-KGB official and knows how to intimidate, confuse and silence his critics, said Ted Lipien. It’s not clear to what extent the Bush Administration has been intimidated by former President Putin, but – according to Lipien – Putin certainly managed to confuse the BBG members who are now unwittingly helping him silence an important alternative source of political news from Washington.

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