WILL AMERICA’S VOICE STAY SILENCED?

Washington, D.C. — Since it was founded in 1942, the Voice of America has been just that – a radio voice for the American perspective on the issues of the day and a prime source of information about American society for its overseas audiences. VOA has also brought educational programs to overseas audiences on such issues as public health and business skills. In recent years, however, the broadcasting service has experienced staff cuts, service reductions, and politically-charged controversies.

At the center of the storm has been the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, which oversees U.S. government-funded media outlets.  And these problems have arisen while – largely through emergency supplemental appropriations from Congress in the past couple of years – the Broadcasting Board of Governors has seen its budget actually increase. Critics say that the BBG has skewed priorities and has spent money that could have gone to its broadcasting services on wasteful administrative overhead and public relations efforts.

America’s voice in Russia fades to silence

Last year the BBG made the unpopular and unexpected decision to terminate all Russian language shortwave radio and television broadcasts of the Voice of America. It ordered VOA to shift its resources towards Internet-based broadcasting. The decision has been widely criticized, in large part because Internet penetration in Russia is too low – estimated at 20% by some pollsters – to justify ending radio and television broadcasts to the Russian public.

But critics see more than just a mistaken choice of media. Former VOA Deputy Director, and author of the bookVoice of America: a History, Alan Heil, Jr., for example, said regarding radio service to Russia that “the Voice of America cannot continue to be silent. It would not only be contrary to the U.S. national interest. It would also be a distinctly untimely disservice to millions of listeners in Russia and the surrounding republics that had, until last July, depended on VOA Russian for more than sixty years as their reliable window on a turbulent world.”

Critics note that it is easier for governments to block websites and control Internet usage than it is to block shortwave radio, and that shortwave radio is more commonplace in conflict zones – where the need for independent media is most vital. The BBG’s decision has been called shortsighted for other reasons, in particular because the VOA could have continued producing shortwave and FM radio as well as television content using its seasoned Russian-language reporting staff – and used it on the Internet as well. Instead, the BBG ordered VOA to produce content only for the VOA website and terminate all Russian language radio and television programming.

And while some in the Broadcasting Board of Governors may consider shortwave radio to be a dying technology, the Russian government apparently does not. As the Voice of America fades as a radio source, Radio Moscow has been renamed the Voice of Russia, and it continues to broadcast in shortwave throughout both Russia and the entire world.

“Runet” – the Internet in Russia

Obviously, there is a vital role for the Internet in America’s information arsenal. In a December 2008 report, the media research group InterMedia said that television remains the dominant source of news coverage in Russia, but that the Internet is growing. 19% of the population, according to InterMedia, reported using the Internet to follow current events in Russia in 2008, up from 13% in 2007.

However, by some estimates only 2% of Russians have broadband service. Without broadband service, listening to radio programs or watching television programs over the Internet can be difficult. Broadband and DSL subscriptions are on the rise, but they are still mostly available in Moscow and St. Petersburg and other major cities. Several companies have large plans to expand their networks. However, as it stands now, many homes can not get even dial-up service for lack of a landline, and it is doubtful that Russian citizens will put up with or pay for watching or listening to a half hour long program on a painfully slow Internet connection. Overall, it seems clear that the share of the Russian population that is not thoroughly “wired” is now unable to be part of the VOA audience.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty gains while VOA loses

The BBG shifted some of VOA’s resources, including radio frequencies, to a different radio broadcaster — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). RFE/RL – known simply as “Svoboda,” or “freedom,” in Russian, was a vital source of information for human rights activists inside the USSR during much of the Cold War. However, the two broadcast entities do not share the same mission or approach to broadcasting, so an expansion of Radio Free Europe cannot be seen as a substitute for what VOA has done in the past.

To begin with, RFE/RL focuses exclusively on news involving the country and region that is broadcasting to, whereas the VOA adds world news and reports on American policies and society. In addition, RFE/RL contracts with private companies overseas or surrogates in places like Moscow to reach its audience. The surrogate companies and their staffs and families are often subject to governmental pressure, intimidation, and threats. The Voice of America, on the other hand, broadcasts directly from Washington and avoids these direct pressures.

Historically, the Voice of America had a larger audience in Russia than RFE/RL has at present. According to InterMedia, VOA’s Russian language service had a cumulative annual audience for 2007 of 6,504,030 people (broadcasting for three hours of radio daily and one hour of TV) while RFE/RL had 3,613,350 people (broadcasting eighteen hours daily on radio). VOA radio had an average weekly listenership of 481,780 listeners, VOA TV had an average weekly viewership of 722,670 viewers and VOA had 120,445 visitors for its website from Russia. These statistics are for Russia only – they do not include Russian language speakers from Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan or other former Soviet republics, which are believed to be a substantial audience.

Finally, there is also some dispute about the methodologies being used to determine the number of visits to VOA’s Russian language website. Sources familiar with VOA’s numbers comment that roughly half of the visits to VOA’s Russian language site may actually be coming from inside the United States. Even if this estimate is exaggerated, there is no disputing the fact that the number of VOA website users is far below the audience that VOA TV and radio enjoyed in Russia. The most recent InterMedia study shows VOA’s annual audience reach in Russia dropped by 98% in just one year: from 7.3% in 2007 to an estimated 0.2% in 2009 (0.2% is the VOA Russian Internet reach.) This drop was experienced only by VOA, so it cannot be solely because of the Russian government’s restrictive media policies. Clearly the disappearance of VOA radio service has harmed America’s ability to reach out to Russian citizens.

Reaction from inside and outside Russia

The cutbacks in VOA service have drawn protests from many quarters. On July 31, 2008 a prominent group of human rights activists in St. Petersburg, Russia, including Aleksandr Nikitin, Anna Sharogradskaya, Olga Staravoitova, and lawyer Yuri Schmidt, sent a letter to Congress asking it to intervene with the BBG saying, “(The Russian) public is deprived of objective coverage of events inside the country and abroad. International radio stations broadcasting in Russian and Internet are the only sources of unbiased, balanced, and truthful information, especially analysis of global events. That is why we believe that it is premature to end VOA’s Russian Service broadcast.”

The bi-partisan Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or CSCE, sent a letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors in October 2008 protesting the Russian service cutbacks as well as planned reductions in VOA’s Ukrainian and Georgian services then-Chairman Alcee Hastings (D-FL) and Ranking Minority Christopher Smith (R-NJ) asked for VOA shortwave radio service to be restored saying, “Freedom of the media in Russia, especially on the airwaves, has been cut to the point that it is extremely difficult for people to hear views other than those espoused by the Kremlin.”

Problems with the BBG decision emerged in stark relief during the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia. Russian language VOA programming went off the air on July 26, less than two weeks before the Russian army entered Georgia on August 7, 2008. Russian speakers in the region thus had one less source for coverage of the war and of the American government’s views. The Georgian language service had also been slated to go off the air, but was granted a reprieve and temporarily increased at the insistence of Congress.

VOA would suffer similar embarrassments in the months ahead as, for example, it terminated Ukrainian language radio service the day before Russia disrupted gas service to Ukraine on January 1, 2009, and when VOA’s highly popular Hindi language radio programs (with an audience of eight million listeners a week) went off the air shortly before the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. After protests from VOA supporters, VOA radio returned on a Moscow-based AM channel for only thirty minutes a day Monday through Friday, down from its previous three hours.

Former VOA Staff Calling for Service Restorations

One of the most prominent critics of the BBG is Ted Lipien, who spent 33 years with the VOA as a reporter and then as Associate Director for Central Programming. Retiring in 2006, Mr. Lipien soon after started the websiteFreeMediaOnline.org to assist independent broadcasters and journalists worldwide. Responding to the cutbacks at VOA, Mr. Lipien launched GovoritAmerika.us, a Russian language site containing news summaries from U.S. government and non-governmental sources.

Mr. Lipien’s criticisms of the BBG go beyond disagreements over planned cutbacks. He charges that BBG market research findings have led Voice of America to cut back on criticism of the Putin government. Mr. Lipien has similarly charged that market research was behind a Radio Liberty decision to carry a program featuring Russian extremists, which sparked protests from Russian human rights groups. Lipien says that most of the responsibility for the cutbacks in Russian language service is the responsibility of Ted Kaufman, a close confidante of Vice President Biden who replaced Biden as U.S. senator from Delaware.

Lipien is also critical of BBG member Jeffrey Hirschberg, charging that Hirschberg’s business interests in Russia are “an apparent conflict of interest” with his BBG responsibilities. Hirschberg, a former Director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, is still on their board and is a partner and Managing Director of Kalorama Partners, LLC, a Washington, DC-based consulting and risk-management company. However, no specific conflict of interest has been documented and it is worth noting that Hirschberg is also a board member of the human rights group Freedom House. But according to Lipien, “in many ways, BBG’s business-connected members with conflicts of interest are more dangerous for journalistic independence at VOA and RFE/RL than the White House and State Department officials who in the past had also tried to interfere with programming for political reasons.”

James Glassman, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy near the end of George W. Bush’s term, was previously the BBG Board Chairman and led the effort to abolish the Russian language services. The board members who voted to abolish the services cited the decline of shortwave and the rise of the Internet as part of their reasoning for the changes.

Voices of discord at VOA Russian service?

However, other VOA insiders speculate that the reorganization of the Russian service may in part have been due to a reputation that it developed in earlier times as having a myriad of internal personnel problems. Former USIA official William P. Kiehl, the Country Affairs Officer for the USSR and Baltic States from 1981-1983, said of the VOA Russian service,

Among those who worked with, but not in, the Russian Service of the VOA, it was known as ‘the snake pit’ because of the internecine warfare that was a constant among the staff. The Russian Service like many language services then and now reflected both the good and the bad of the societies that provided the native speakers–so in the case of the Russian Service you had Westernizers and Slavophiles, monarchists and socialists, Jews and anti-Semites, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, people with all sorts of agendas, all working together in a high pressure situation under the supervision of a Russian speaking Foreign Service Officer from the ranks of the USIA or the State Department.

Clearly, the diverse staff of the VOA Russian-language service – a product of the Soviet Union’s own complicated legacy – must have been a difficult one to manage. But it produced programming that was listened to by millions of Soviet citizens during the Cold War, and remained popular after the breakup of the USSR. This legacy has been interrupted with the changes to VOA’s Russian service.

The future of the BBG

Currently there are four vacancies on the BBG Board out of a total of nine seats. Secretary of State Clinton holds one seat on the board, but generally speaking the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, currently designated to be Ms. Judith McHale, sits in for the Secretary. Board members can serve after their terms have expired until replacements are named. Currently, four members are serving in this status. While traditionally, four members have been named by the Senate Minority Leader, and four by the sitting president, it is now technically possible for President Obama to remake the Board in its entirety by himself.

The Obama Administration has not given any indication who it will appoint to the BBG or if it will even keep the BBG as an institution. In both 2007 and 2008 the Office of Personnel Management rated the BBG as having the worst employee satisfaction level of any government agency. So new appointees will have their hands full trying to fix it, and the abrupt decision taken in 2008 to end Russian-language service may be impossible to reverse. There continues to be a great deal of uncertainty surrounding much of VOA’s work. For example, the Uzbek language service — providing world and U.S. news to a poor nation with an autocratic government that borders Afghanistan — has been threatened with closure in several annual VOA budgets.

It is quite possible that the Obama Administration views the BBG as an agency in need of an overhaul. The BBG was founded in the wake of the dismantling of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1999, a move which reshaped – not necessarily for the better – America’s public diplomacy. At that time, most of USIA’s programs were folded into the Department of State. But there was a fear that VOA, RFE/RL, and Radio Marti (which broadcasts to Cuba) would be unable to maintain their journalistic independence under the Department of State. The concept of a bi-partisan board with governors from both parties appointed by the president, with a spot reserved for a State Department official, arose as a solution to that problem.

Today, questions remain as to how international broadcasting operations should be managed. As a Senator, Vice President Biden was among those most involved in the discussion. How the Obama Administration will approach international broadcasting remains to be seen, but it is likely the BBG’s many perceived missteps are going to lead to some changes. In these challenging times, America can ill afford such tumult in its overseas broadcasting services.

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