Op-Ed: America’s radios dancing to Putin’s tune in Moscow

Voice of Russia Letter to BBG on Election Coverage Restrictions

In a Digital Journal news commentary, Op-Ed: America’s radios dancing to Putin’s tune in Moscow, former Voice of America acting associate director and journalist Ted Lipien revealed that Voice of America and Radio Liberty, funded by US taxpayers to promote media freedom abroad, self-censor news on two stations in Moscow to comply with Russian media law prior to Russia’s presidential elections on March 4.

Lipien reports that US government-funded media freedom broadcasters, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Liberty (Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, RFE RL), have resorted to self-censorship of their news to keep broadcasting on two leased radio stations in Moscow in the days leading up to Russian presidential elections.

Self-censorship affects only their radio newscasts on two AM Moscow transmitters, which are leased and paid for by the US government to rebroadcast VOA and RL programs. It does not extend to their other program delivery options, such as their websites.

Lipien reported that the newscasts on these stations were changed in response to a request from Russian operators of the transmitters who had warned that broadcasting political programming or poll results several days before the elections would violate Russian media law.

Because uncensored VOA and RL newscasts are still available online and, in the case of Radio Liberty, also through shortwave radio transmissions, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages and funds these two broadcasters, said that

the restrictions “do not interfere with the ability of the Voice of America or Radio Liberty to cover the elections or to carry on with their other duties.”

In the case of the Voice of America, however, removing news even from some broadcasts may violate Public Law 94-350, also known as the VOA Charter, which mandates that

“VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.” Furthermore, the law, also known as the VOA Charter, stipulates that “VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”

Removing certain news from certain Voice of America newscasts or eliminating newscasts altogether undermines the law’s requirement that VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news, BBG Watch concluded.

The BBG’s newly-hired director of communications Lynne Weil said in a response to an inquiry from Free Media Online, a US-based media freedom NGO, that

“the BBG and its content providers, including the many individuals who risk their lives to shine the light of truth on some of the world’s darkest corners, are fiercely protective of their journalistic independence and integrity, and vigilant about any obstacles – real or potential – to getting their work done.”

Lynne Weil further explained that

“The VOA Russian Service intends to report on the elections and update its website and blogs throughout the election cycle, without any restriction on its activities, BBG spokeswoman said. The VOA Russian Service prepares, however, a 30 minute radio program that gets broadcast Monday through Friday on another AM station in Moscow. The rest of VOA’s programming on the Moscow medium-wave station is in English.  Because the frequency is on a local lease, it is subject to the Russian law.  To comply, in the five days before the election the VOA English Service is making a  change to the 24/7 stream sent to Moscow —  replacing its five-minute hourly newscast with a pre-recorded segment that invites audiences to go online to VOANews.com for news and information about Russia and the world,” Lynne Weil said. “The remainder of English stream to Moscow is unchanged.”

Read Lipien’s full op-ed in Digital Journal Op-Ed: America’s radios dancing to Putin’s tune in Moscow

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