Surrogate Broadcasting 101 — Why BBG and RFE/RL Are Failing in Russia
FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, Commentary by Ted Lipien, September 8, 2008, San Francisco — A country like Russia either needs surrogate broadcasting or it doesn’t. Many countries, however, need balanced and objective news from the Voice of America that surrogate broadcasters living overseas are not trained to provide. If a country also needs a genuine surrogate broadcaster — as it is the case now with Russia — surrogate broadcasting should not be hostage to Mr. Putin’s good will and the machinations of his secret police.
Surrogate broadcasters should be totally independent and protected from being intimidated, recruited by foreign intelligence services, or controlled by U.S. diplomats. They should not feel pressured by unreasonable expectations to achieve high audience ratings, or else they are likely to become like the rest of the local media — intimidated, subject to self-censorship, and reflective of the local prejudices of the worst kind. The policies of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages U.S. international broadcasting, have forced the semi-private, U.S.-funded surrogate broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to lose much of its independent surrogate status and become more like yet another domestic Russian broadcaster fearful of the Kremlin.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors and the RFE/RL management will no doubt argue that their broadcasters in Russia are fearless and completely independent. If that is the case, it would be a great achievement, even a miracle, considering that at least 292 journalists have been murdered or have disappeared in Russia since 1990, all other broadcasting entities have been placed under the control of the Kremlin or practice self-censorship, and Mr. Putin’s is using highly effective tactics in dealing with his media critics by unleashing on them his former colleagues in the KGB.
When I worked as a journalist and later as director of VOA Polish Service, we relied on two indicators to measure our effectiveness: how many times the communist government’s spokesman condemned our broadcasts and how many times American diplomats at the Embassy in Warsaw complained in confidential cables that we were too belligerent. (The State Department tried unsuccessfully to censor our telephone interviews with the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa while he was out of prison but still under secret police surveillance. The “belligerent” label was used to describe comments by our interviewees like Walesa. VOA journalists generally avoided expressing their personal views.) We have not heard lately of similar criticism or protests about RFE/RL broadcasts in Russia. It is no accident that RFE/RL is not being condemned or kicked out of Russia, and it is not because Mr. Putin wants to be unusually nice to the American-funded broadcaster while he silences other journalists.
I will give some examples so that readers can judge for themselves whether the Broadcasting Board of Governors has indeed pulled a miracle and managed to create in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty a super-hero surrogate broadcaster that even an ex-KGB officer like Mr. Putin does not know how to handle. Does RFE/RL still offer fearless criticism of the Kremlin from its studios in Moscow located in close proximity to Lubyanka, the headquarters of Russia’s secret police? Are they so effective in exposing the taking over of the country’s political, economic, and media resources by Mr. Putin and his friends that the Kremlin wants to close them down? We may also want to ask whether Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty can replace the Voice of America — which is safely based in Washington, D.C. — as the only on air radio voice of the American people in Russia? The BBG would want us to believe that the answer to all of these questions is “yes.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “surrogate” as “to choose in place of another, substitute.” According to my sources, the new Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Jeffrey Gedmin has tried to ignore some of the more questionable directives from the Broadcasting Board of Governors and move the emphasis at RFE/RL from the BBG-driven marketing focus back to program content. But he has been doing this quietly and does not want to admit publicly that because of the BBG actions, RFE/RL is no longer an effective external “surrogate broadcaster.” Nor will he admit publicly that his organization faces serious programming and security problems in Russia. In fact, he insists that RFE/RL continues to be a model surrogate broadcaster in Russia.
The BBG’s preference for overseas-based private broadcasters rather than Washington-based and Congressionally-chartered Voice of America has put American broadcasting resources at risk in a number of countries in Eurasia by exposing them to pressures from the local regimes and local stations rebroadcasting U.S. sponsored programs, which are now almost always under tight regime control. By operating safely from Munich in West Germany during the Cold War, RFE/RL engaged in highly effective “surrogate broadcasting” to Russia, and was largely protected from reprisals by the KGB. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case with RFE/RL as it operates now in response to directives from the BBG and in pursuing its own bureaucratic interests.
Throughout most of the Cold War, RFE/RL journalists were not allowed by their management to travel behind the Iron Curtain and for good reasons. But as a result of decisions made by the BBG, most of RFE/RL Russian radio programs now originate in Russia. The majority of Radio Liberty Russian broadcasters are Russian citizens who live in Russia with their families. I’m not arguing that RFE/RL journalists should no longer work in Mr. Putin’s Russia under any circumstances, or that it is completely unsafe for them to travel there. I’m merely arguing that it is dangerous for them to work there under the conditions imposed on them by the BBG. Effective surrogate broadcasting to a country whose regime controls domestic program distribution channels and skillfully intimidates the local media cannot depend mostly on the size of the audience and the good will of the local leader. It must depend on the alternative nature of its message, high quality of its program content, and the ability to make the local regime highly uncomfortable. One cannot achieve this if one must worry about protecting local news bureaus and rebroadcasting arrangements worth millions of dollars.
Despite the murders and disappearances of at least 292 journalists in Russia since 1990, the Broadcasting Board of Governors continued to support the expansion of RFE/RL operations in Russia and its large Moscow bureau while reducing and eventually eliminating all Voice of America Russian radio broadcasts from Washington. This policy continued even as Russian President and later Prime Minister Vladimir Putin kept closing down Russian media outlets critical of his policies, and more independent journalists were being killed.
Shortly after independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow in an execution-style hit in 2006, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty managers made public statements strongly suggesting an attempt on their part to appease Mr. Putin. In an apparent effort to protect their presence in the country, the head of RFE/RL Moscow bureau, Elena Glushkova, said in an on-air discussion in October 2006 that the work of Radio Liberty journalists cannot cause Russia any harm. She insisted that RFE/RL reporters respect and love Russia. She also pointed out that all Radio Liberty reporters who work in Russia are Russian citizens and said that her optimism despite the murder of Ms. Politkovskaya is based in her belief in “the common sense of the current Russian leadership.” Maria Klain, Russian Service director at the RFE/RL home office in Prague, also expressed confidence that the radio’s future in Russia looks good. These comments surprised and offended pro-democracy activists in Russia who were still in mourning after Anna Politovskaya’s murder.
There is no reason to believe that RFE/RL journalists in Russia can be safer from the secret police than any other Russian journalist. If anything, they would be prime targets of the FSB operations. In an interview for the Association for International Broadcasting “Channel ” magazine, Dr. Gedmin said that “In Russia, three years ago we had about 30 affiliates, today we have about 5. The Russians have used much softer, shrewder tactics, they will send a health inspector or a fire inspector.”
Actually there was nothing soft or shrewd about these tactics. What Dr. Gedmin should have said was that the officers of the secret police, the FSB (the new KGB), called in for questioning station managers who were using RFE/RL and VOA programs and told them to stop their cooperation with U.S. broadcasters or be closed down by health inspectors. Much more serious threats were also used. I know this because I had placed RFE/RL programs on these stations and some of their owners told me in strict confidence about the talks they had with the FSB. (They could be prosecuted for revealing state secrets if they went public with their stories of threats from the secret police, as would any Russian citizens now working for RFE/RL in Russia.)
Owners of these stations also told me that the directives they kept receiving from the RFE/RL Moscow bureau to register their rebroadcasts with the Russian authorities convinced them that it was time to stop their cooperation with RFE/RL and VOA and that the FSB was already on their trail. They did not see these warnings as motivated by a concern for them at all.
RFE/RL management, however, is still committed to preserving their Moscow bureau operation rather than admitting that the BBG strategy for Russia represents a major programming liability and actually prevents RFE/RL from doing effective surrogate broadcasting. Some might argue that many RFE/RL journalists refused to follow this model, and many did just that. But the overall situation has reached a critical point, and the BBG and the RFE/RL management refuse to admit it.
Here is another example which shows how the BBG started thinking that RFE/RL can somehow operate in Russia differently than all other Russian broadcasters who were being intimidated by the Kremlin and the secret police. BBG member Jeff Hirschberg, a Washington lawyer who is a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, negotiated with Russian officials to keep the RFE/RL Moscow bureau operating while other media outlets in Russia were being taken over by Mr. Putin’s associates.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors was also responsible for forcing RFE/RL to change its program content to become more appealing to the audience in the vain hope that local rebroadcasting could increase RFE/RL’s radio ratings. Consultants hired by the BBG conducted surveys and told RFE/RL that their programs appear anti-Russian. RFE/RL managers were told to change their program content and those who resisted were fired. Here is another example of what this strategy has produced.
The Moscow Human Rights Bureau has recently criticized RFE/RL for giving an entire hour of airtime to a former Russian Parliament deputy Andrey Savel’yev. The Russian human rights organization said that Mr. Savel’yev’s “chauvinist and racist views are well-known.”
In criticizing RFE/RL for giving airtime to Mr. Savel’yev, the Russian human rights organization said the station was guilty not only of enabling such people “to spread their poisonous views,” but also of legitimizing their ideas “in the minds of many impressionable radio listeners.” The appeal, written by the organization’s head Aleksandr Brod, argues that stations, which “in their pursuit of higher ratings” invite such “nationalist radicals,” are giving these enemies of democracy a larger audience and exacerbating ethnic tensions.
The BBG policies in combination with the risks of operating within close reach of the Kremlin’s secret police have made RFE/RL more like a local Russian media outlet than a surrogate broadcaster the American taxpayers would expect it to be. It seems inconceivable that a broadcasting entity that works under the watchful eye of Mr. Putin’s secret police and gives airtime to extreme nationalists who promote racism should from now on be the only on air radio voice of the American people in Russia.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors had shut down all Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian troops attacked Georgia. This phenomenal blunder needs to be immediately corrected. But the BBG should also change its policies so that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty can once again become an effective surrogate broadcaster in Russia for as long as Russia needs Western-originated surrogate broadcasting. Russian journalists working at RFE/RL need to be protected from intimidation by the Kremlin’s security services and not dependent on Mr. Putin’s good will.
Ted Lipien was formerly acting VOA associate director and helped to place BBG-funded radio and TV programs on stations in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in the region.
He worked in Washington, D.C. and spent eight years as a regional media marketing director for the BBG based at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague. He often travelled to Moscow and met there with RFE/RL Moscow bureau’s local managers and journalists.
He is the author of a book about Pope John Paul II and new feminism, in which he discussed the attempts by the Polish communist secret police and the KGB to spy on the Polish pontiff and feed disinformation to Western journalists. He also described how communist agents tried to infiltrate U.S. radio stations broadcasting to audiences behind the Iron Curtain. He points out in his book that the main targets of the communist secret police blackmail and recruitment efforts were journalists, intellectuals, extremists of all types, and priests.