Citizen Journalists in Belarus Tell Election Story to Voice of America but VOA Fails to Deliver News Back to Belarus

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FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org Truckee, CA, USA, December 23, 2010 — Free Media Online Commentary: According to Voice of America Russian Service insiders, the rosy picture painted in the recent VOA press release on the media situation in Belarus during the disputed presidential elections may not be as good as it seems. The VOA press release makes a claim that “dramatic first-hand accounts of the government’s post-election crackdown are being seen and heard because of a special Voice of America effort to harness the growing power of social media.”

In reality, citizens in Belarus found most independent media websites inaccessible. Global Voices, a free media NGO reported, quoting Lenta.ru, that the Belarus government blocked all major social media (Gmail, Twitter, LiveJournal, Facebook) as well as opposition media outlets “Charter 97“, “Belarus Partizan“, and “Solidarity.” Problems with the internet and limited access to social media and opposition websites in Minsk were being reported throughout the day, said the media NGO. According to Global Voices, the government decided to block social media in order to prevent mass mobilization after the elections and following protests.

Global Voices also reported that Belarus users are being redirected to fake opposition websites: gazetaby.in, nnby.in, charter97.in, bchdd.in, belaruspartisan.in, euroradio.in, ucpb.in, svaboda.in. The design of all these websites is the same but the content is completely different from the original. All domains belong to “Belpak”, Belarus state-owned Internet provider.

The claims in the VOA press release seems especially suspect in light of the reports of Internet blockage and cyber attacks. Read Hal Roberts’ report from from The Berkman Center for Internet & Society INDEPENDENT MEDIA SITES IN BELARUS REPORTEDLY HIJACKED DURING ELECTION

The Voice of America could have played a major role delivering news and information to Belarus by radio, but it did not have that capability due to bad planning and mismanagement at its parent agency.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, BBG, which manages VOA, terminated VOA Russian FM, shortwave and medium wave radio broadcasts in 2008, just 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia. Such radio broadcasts, especially medium wave (AM) from transmitters in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia, which cannot be easily blocked, would have been extremely useful during the emergency in Belarus or any other type of crisis, also in Russia.

According to VOA insiders, citizen journalists were able to tell their news to a VOA reporter on the ground, but the Voice of America was unable to deliver the news back to Belarus because it lacked effective program delivery when faced with the blockage of the Internet by the regime in Minsk. If a similar emergency happened in Russia and the Kremlin decided to block the Internet, the Voice of America Russian Service would likewise be unable to deliver news to Russia. This already happened once during President Obama’s official visit to Moscow when the VOA website was unavailable for two full days due to a cyber attack.

Before, during, and after the presidential elections, the authorities in Belarus managed to establish tight control over the Internet and phone communications. VOA insiders claim that there was no significant communication between VOA in Washington and citizens in Belarus and that increased VOA Russian Service web traffic came not from Belarus but from the United States, Western and Central Europe — and from Russia, where the BBG has been spending large amounts of money advertising the VOA Russian Service website.

If there is a crisis in Russia or another Russian military attack on a neighboring country similar to the attack on Georgia, and the Kremlin blocks the Internet or launches cyber attacks, the examples of Belarus in 2010 and Georgia 2008 show that without radio the Voice of America has no means to deliver news and information in Russian to a crisis area. VOA insiders point out that it is not the VOA’s mission to provide news and information over the Internet to the United States and Western Europe.

As Global Voices pointed out, citizen reports were filed but they were not widely distributed due to the blockage of the Internet and social media. With its radio broadcasts terminated in 2008 by the BBG in favor of using the Internet and social media, the VOA Russian Service had no emergency plans for delivering its news to Belarus.

GLOBAL VOICES: Problems with the internet and limited access to social media and opposition websites in Minsk were being reported throughout the day, too (see earlier GV updates by Alexey Sidorenko – here, here, and here). Evgeny Mor (see earlier GV updates by Alexey Sidorenko – here, here, and here). Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov), who is currently in Belarus, tweeted that he couldn’t “access anything using https.” In another tweet, posted Sunday afternoon, he wrote:
I also hear that since access to Gmail in Belarus is blocked, opposition sites can’t use their mailing lists

Still, citizen media reports were being filed before, during and after the events in the center of Minsk.

The VOA press release below should be compared with the reports above and below from Global Voices. Keeping the VOA staff informed in Washington and putting news items online — something that anybody with access to a website can do — does not translate into informing an audience in Belarus. Unlike the Voice of America, Global Voices told the whole truth about its ability to deliver Internet and social media content. Individuals and NGOs did a much better job of citizen reporting from Belarus at a fraction of the cost than did the Voice of America, which has spent millions of dollars on new media. VOA’s advantage would have been in having effective, blockage-proof program delivery using AM, shortwave, and even FM radio signals from neighboring countries. Individuals and NGOs are not able to develop and maintain such program delivery. Unfortunately, the BBG and its executive staff bureaucrats eliminated VOA’s ability to respond to political emergencies in countries like Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Those reading the VOA press release should also consider the BBC news report that — with only a small fraction of people in Belarus having regular access to the internet — the authorities there are not too worried.

GLOBAL VOICES BELARUS: Belarus government blocked all major social media (Gmail, Twitter, LiveJournal, Facebook) as well as opposition media outlets “Charter 97“, “Belarus Partizan“, and “Solidarity“, Lenta.ru reported [RUS]. The government decided to block social media in order to prevent mass mobilization after today’s elections and following protests.

Voice of America Press Release

Citizen Journalists in Belarus Tell Election Story to VOA

Washington, D.C., December 22, 2010 – A new breed of citizen journalist has emerged in Belarus, and dramatic first-hand accounts of the government’s post-election crackdown are being seen and heard because of a special Voice of America effort to harness the growing power of social media.

Visits to the VOA Russian Service website rose dramatically in the aftermath of Sunday’s controversial election and the government’s suppression of dissent. More than 140,000 visits were recorded at the VOA site (http://www.voanews.com/russian/news/), which is posting eyewitness reports on a special “crowdsourcing map.”

The citizen journalist reports, received through email and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, are carefully screened and verified by VOA journalists, who have sifted through thousands since last Friday.

VOA Director Danforth Austin says the Russian Service’s carefully planned use of “crowdsourcing” is a “textbook example of how citizen journalists can help VOA provide accurate first-hand coverage of an event and complement the work of our journalists in the field.” By using new media in a thoughtful way, Austin says, “We have been able to engage in a conversation with our audience and tell the world what they are saying and experiencing.”

VOA Russian Service coverage of the Belarus election also included a dramatic interview with presidential candidate Andrey Sannikov, who was arrested and badly beaten. He and 17 other prominent Belarusian opposition leaders have been accused of inciting mass riots and face the possibility of long prison terms. No media has had access to Sannikov since his arrest.

VOA Russian Service editors say that in addition to an increase in traffic to the website, the use of social media platforms and “crowdsourcing” has also triggered an unprecedented number of references to VOA Russian content on influential Russian and Belarusian websites.

The Voice of America, which first went on the air in 1942, is a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  VOA broadcasts approximately 1,500 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 123 million people.  Programs are produced in 44 languages and are intended exclusively for audiences outside of the United States.

For more information, please call VOA Public Relations at (202) 203-4959, or e-mail us at askvoa@voanews.com.

6 Comments

  1. VOA Insider says:

    It is shameful that even during this Holiday Season VOA is engaged in pulling legs of the American public by bragging about “a special Voice of America effort to harness the growing power of social media” and success achieved by Russian Service in engaging foreign audiences in coverage of the presidnetial elections in Belarus.
     
    Amnesty International, Reporters Without Boarders, Committee to Protect Journalists and numerous international observers including staffers in the Russian Service stated  that mobile communication, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks and many opposition and independent websites were blocked by the Belorussian authorities before, during and after elections December 18-21.
     
    Nobody in Belarus including Russian Service correspondent were able to send a single SMS to the outside world from mobile phones or computers serviced by Belorussian providers. VOA’s reporter had a luxury of having agency cell phone which he used to narrate his reports to Washington where other staffers Twittered and posted them to the website and Facebook. But VOA’s Press Release makes a different impression by twisting facts:

    “Visits to the VOA Russian Service website rose dramatically in the aftermath of Sunday’s controversial election and the government’s suppression of dissent. More than 140,000 visits were recorded at the VOA site (http://www.voanews.com/russian/news/), which is posting eyewitness reports on a special “crowdsourcing map.”

    The citizen journalist reports, received through email and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, are carefully screened and verified by VOA journalists, who have sifted through thousands since last Friday.

    VOA Director Danforth Austin says the Russian Service’s carefully planned use of “crowdsourcing” is a “textbook example of how citizen journalists can help VOA provide accurate first-hand coverage of an event and complement the work of our journalists in the field.” By using new media in a thoughtful way, Austin says, “We have been able to engage in a conversation with our audience and tell the world what they are saying and experiencing.”

    Indeed, there was surge of visits to the Russian Service site during the elections, but it is a shameless exageration to say that “we have been able to engage in a conversation with our audience” when no Belorussian citizen was able to open our site or send us a note. Much of the surge has been achieved thanks to an agressive and expensive marketing campaign and placement of links to VOA’s Russian Service website and some materials to the most popular Russian media sites.
     
    Striving to attract audience is a good intention, but it can’t be achieved by fudging the truth.

  2. Free Media Online says:

    The problem with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America (VOA) as media organizations run by politically-connected bureaucrats is that instead of apologizing for and correcting what went wrong with the delivery of news to Belarus during the crisis, they are congratulating themselves for what went wrong. Ted Lipien, Free Media Online

  3. I would say this is very doubtful and biased analysis. I covered this elections. Me and my contacts in Belarus didn’t have any problems with VOA web-site except crowdsourcing widget. I can imagine that VOA’s web-site was blocked a couple of hours Dec 19th. But only a couple of hours.
    Today we got Google statistics: we saw 614 percent weekly increase in traffic originating form Belarus.

  4. Free Media Online says:

    Thank you Alex for your comment. We believe that hard reporting work by dedicated journalists like yourself should be widely delivered to audiences in Russia, Belarus, and other countries and not subject to cyber attacks and Internet blockage by repressive regimes, especially during emergencies.

    Our information for this article came from many highly-trusted sources, including other Voice of America journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Global Voices, and other media freedom NGOs. They all reported problems with the Internet in Belarus during the elections, particularly with social media websites. They also reported sabotage of independent media and opposition websites.

    We are happy to note your comment that the VOA Russian website was not among them most of the time. The Voice of America contacts did not know whether the VOA site was blocked in Belarus, but they did know that social media sites were blocked and that the number of people in Belarus with access to the Internet is small even under the best of circumstances. Our Voice of America contacts were particularly disappointed that VOA was not able to reach a wider audience through radio because the Broadcasting Board of Governors eliminated VOA Russian long-distance shortwave and medium wave radio broadcasts and delivery in 2008.

    We know that after the BBG terminated the Voice of America Russian radio broadcasts and opted for the Internet-only delivery, VOA Russian Service audience decreased by 90 percent. We also know that during President Obama’s official visit to Russia, the Voice of America website was completely blocked for two full days and VOA reports from Moscow by a VOA reporter (we hope it was not you) could not be seen by anyone.

    The 600+ percent increase in web traffic you mentioned can only be meaningful if you can tell us how many UNIQUE visitors per day from BELARUS to VOA Russian website you had prior to the elections in Belarus, how many UNIQUE visitors from Belarus per day you had during the elections, and how many unique visitors per day from Belarus you have now. Are you also sure that visitors to your site from Russia are not counted as coming from Belarus since most of the Internet traffic from Belarus goes through Russia?

    Could you also share with us your data as to what percentage of people in Belarus have Internet access at home? We don’t believe, for example, that, considering the repressive nature of the regime in Minsk, government employees in Belarus can easily visit foreign news sites, except perhaps the Russian ones, while they are at work. But we would be happy to share with our site visitors whatever information you have on Internet use in Belarus. What percentage of the adult population has regular, daily full access to the Internet, not just email access? The hard work of the Voice of America Russian Service reporters deserves to be made accessible to a much wider audience using a multimedia program delivery strategy, which includes radio and satellite TV in addition to the Internet.

    We would also like to know how many UNIQUE visitors per day (and per week) to VOA Russian website come from Russia.

    Could you also share with us what your total UNDUPLICATED audience is in Belarus and Russia as a percentage of the total adult population of these countries and tell us how you measure it?

    We hope that this information is not classified and you would be able to provide it.

    Again, thank you very much for your comment and we hope that your news reports will soon securely reach a much larger audience both in Belarus and in Russia.

  5. Free Media Online says:

    For more information about various attempts to restrict free access to the Internet in Belarus see OpenNet Initiative report.

    “Based on periodic testing, ONI has detected sporadic but sophisticated blocking of Internet content, prompted by political events in the country, suggesting that the regime is inclined toward using second- and third-generation techniques.”

    http://opennet.net/research/profiles/belarus

  6. FreeMediaOnline says:

    From an article written by the staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission:

    “…cyber police shut down numerous internet and social networking sites. Repressive actions have continued, including raids on opposition party offices, NGOs, individual residences of activists and journalists, and independent media outlets by police and the KGB. ”

    http://www.csce.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=ContentRecords.ViewDetail&ContentRecord_id=482&Region_id=0&Issue_id=0&ContentType=G&ContentRecordType=G&CFID=46828589&CFTOKEN=23347244

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