BBG Watch Commentary
Until recently, the part time, bipartisan board of the federal agency in charge of promoting media freedom abroad through broadcasts and online news and information programs, has ignored several incidents involving its senior executives and managers trying to intimidate journalists who reported on their misdeeds. But recent board actions suggest that presidential appointees overseeing U.S. international broadcasting have had enough of these abuses that hurt the agency’s image in the United States and abroad.
Previously, with one notable exception of a BBG member most disliked by the senior staff, the board has not paid much attention to this issue, partly because some former BBG members may have even been guilty themselves of tolerating attempts by various top level executives to silence media critics.
But the culture of media intimidation fostered by some of BBG’s senior staffers is now being addressed by board, one source told BBG Watch, because of serious crises that these executives have caused, failed to prevent, or promptly alert BBG members to their existence.
The irony is that the Broadcasting Board of Governor’s primary mission is to protect and support media freedom and investigative journalism abroad as necessary elements of strengthening democracy and contributing to U.S. national security. The broadcasting entities managed by the BBG are all public institutions funded by U.S. taxpayers.
Intimidation of of the press is one of the main issues reported on by BBG broadcasters. They reported, for example, that the President Putin had recently signed a law which made slander a criminal offense and imposed penalties in excess of $100,000. The law was clearly designed to silence the Kremlin’s critics and stop investigative journalism. Its purpose was to intimidate independent journalists.
Despite all odds, rank and file journalists at BBG-funded entities are doing an outstanding job with a few exception where management personnel actions and an atmosphere of fear and intimidation have limited some human rights reporting.
But while BBG broadcasters still report on censorship, corruption and other abuses by repressive governments, a language service director accused independent journalists of slander, a former broadcasting entity head hinted that he might (or might not) take legal action against his media critics, and a top executive wrote an email to a United Nations official requesting that press credentials of an independent journalist who had annoyed him be revoked. A service director refused to cover the Andrei Sakharov human rights journalism awards, one of which went to one of the director’s many critics among independent journalists. The director claimed it was unfortunately a low-profile event in a country ruled by an authoritarian government which controls most media. A former (fortunately) BBG member lashed out in an email against an independent blog (ours) reporting on poor decisions within the agency. Top level managers at a broadcasting entity also trashed our independent blog. In a highly patronizing fashion, they told their own journalists not to believe anything we report while they themselves gave a misleading report to the staff, which was later refuted by the head of a U.S. human rights organization. Senior executives at the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) posted anonymous attacks on professional integrity of one of our journalists who criticized them in mainstream U.S. media. These IBB executives even managed to convince gullible investigators of the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that independent media reports on waste and abuse at the BBG somehow hampers BBG’s mission and that waste and abuse do not occur at the agency under their management. They have been rated in OPM surveys as the worst managers in the Federal Government, but the OIG inspection team chose to believe them.
The culture of outside media intimidation and intimidation of all critics being fostered by IBB executives and some senior managers is just an extension of how they treat journalists who work for them. Foreign journalists face legal discrimination at one of the BBG’s entities and contract journalists are shamelessly exploited and their rights restricted as well by actions and decisions of the IBB senior staff.
But these executives may have finally overreached with their behind the scenes vicious criticism and attacks on the authority of BBG members themselves. Most board members are now paying attention. They have already taken some personnel and other actions, and the days of intimidating journalists, those who work for the agency and those who report on it from the outside, may soon come to an end. We hope so, as the culture of media intimidation has no place in a U.S. government agency dedicated to defending media freedom.