U.S. Jamming Its Own Radio Broadcasts In A Crisis With Russia
Bureaucratic Jamming Of U.S. Broadcasts To Russia, Georgia And Ukraine
FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, September 7, 2008, San Francisco — Political jamming originating in Washington rather than Soviet-style electronic jamming of radio signals made it impossible for the Russian speakers in the war zone in Georgia and in Russia itself to hear Voice of America (VOA) news broadcasts during the recent crisis in the Caucasus. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union resorted to electronic jamming of VOA radio broadcasts each time a major conflict erupted between Washington and Moscow.
But during the most recent emergency caused by Russia’s attack on Georgia, the jamming of VOA radio was done not by the Kremlin but by the U.S. Government’s own agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The Soviet-era jamming of radio signals was only partially effective, as determined radio listeners were usually able to fine tune their receivers to overcome the electronic interference with the radio program. This time, bureaucratic jammers in Washington completely silenced Russian-language news broadcasts from the Voice of America just as hostilities in the Caucasus region were about to flare up.
U.S. Radio Goes Silent 12 Days Before Russia Attacks Georgia — Bush And Cheney Try To Reassure Nervous Allies
Twelve days before the crisis erupted, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent bipartisan body which manages all U.S. Government-sponsored civilian broadcasts, put an end to all on-air Voice of America radio programs in Russian. The BBG was also about to stop all VOA radio programs to Georgia and Ukraine, the two countries under pressure from Russia. Both of these countries were visited this week by Vice President Dick Cheney who said in Tbilisi that Americans “stand in solidarity with the people of Georgia” and assured the Ukrainians of America’s “unwavering determination to strengthen the bonds between our countries — not just now, but for the long term.”
[Read Vice President Cheney’s Comments in Georgia and in Ukraine.]
BBG’s political jamming of the Voice of America radio to Russia resulted in silencing of VOA broadcasts. Here you can listen to Soviet-style jamming.
You can also hear the first Voice of America Russian-language radio broadcast to the Soviet Union on February 17, 1947. The last broadcast was on July 26, 2008. Russia attacked Georgia on August 8, 2008.
Also this week, President Bush announced a $1 billion aid package for Georgia. By closing down the VOA Georgian service, the BBG wanted to save a few hundred thousand dollars. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, the BBG wanted more money to expand its public affairs operation and intended to hire a U.S. media celebrity as its spokesperson. Neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney have made any references to the BBG-funded broadcasts during the current crisis with Russia. [Read President Bush’s Statement on Georgia.]
Senator Joe Biden’s Staff Said To Have Helped Take VOA Off The Air
The President had no reason to praise the BBG because, in an incredible twist of Washington politics, the Senate staff of Senator Joe Biden was said to have worked against the wishes of most members of Congress by helping the BBG bureaucrats to achieve their longtime goal of shutting down VOA Russian broadcasts — a move made by the BBG in late July without any public announcement, just days before Russia attacked Georgia. Most members of Congress have been strongly against ending VOA radio broadcasts to media-at-risk countries, including Russia and Ukraine, and in previous years managed to stop the BBG from implementing some of the proposed program cuts.
Senator Biden was said to be in favor of closing down Voice of America Russian radio from Washington to benefit another U.S. government-funded broadcaster, the semi-private Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which is based in Prague and Moscow. RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state. President Bush and the White House staff were, however, equally at fault for the bureaucratic jamming of the Voice of America when they did not question the BBG’s recommendations to cut programs to Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Tibet, and several other countries.
Former U.S. presidents, including President Reagan, frequently mentioned and praised the work of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasters during various crises in relations with Moscow. The decisions made by the BBG left no room for presidential praise during the most recent crisis over the Russian military intervention in Georgia.
After silencing the Voice of America radio to Russia and being aware of its decision to end VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine, the BBG has shown very little activity, issuing just one press release long after the Russian attack on Georgia.
The press release, carefully crafted by the BBG staff involved in shutting down VOA broadcasts, reminded the remaining four* VOA Georgian broadcasters in Washington D.C. that while their programs might continue “for the foreseeable future,” “the Administration’s FY 2008 budget, as approved by Congress, provided that all BBG broadcasting to Georgia was to be done by RFE/RL after September 30, 2008.” The press release failed to mention that most members of Congress would have opposed VOA programming cuts if they were put to a vote.
*The Voice of America Georgian service, which the BBG wanted to close down, was reduced to six persons. When the war started, two broadcasters were on leave in Georgia. The remaining four were fighting exhaustion and worked with hardly any days off. They barely managed to double their airtime from 30 minutes to one hour daily. In similar previous news emergencies before the BBG was put in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, VOA had sufficient resources and was able to significantly increase airtime to Russia, Poland, and other countries.
Exposure To Secret Police Intimidation
The BBG’s preference for overseas-based private broadcasters rather than Washington-based and Congressionally-chartered Voice of America has also put American broadcasting resources at risk in a number of countries in Eurasia by exposing them to pressures from local regimes and local stations rebroadcasting U.S. sponsored programs, which are usually 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. 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.
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.
Radio Liberty Managers Put A Positive Spin On The Murder Of A Pro-Democracy Journalist
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.
BBG Members Ignore Risks in Authoritarian States
Earlier, 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 on the orders from the Kremlin by Mr. Putin’s associates. Mr. Hirschberg is one of the Democrats on the current Board, as is Edward E. Kaufman, who was formerly Senator Biden’s chief of staff and also a long time supporter of RFE/RL. The BBG executive director, Jeff Trimble, was formerly acting president of RFE/RL.
Most of the Republicans on the Board also voted for the elimination of VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.The only BBG member who spoke up against these cuts and questioned the BBG strategy in Russia was said to be Blanquita Cullum, who is also the only woman and the only working broadcaster on the current Board. (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is an ex officio BBG member but does not attend BBG meetings.) Other BBG members have experience in commercial U.S. broadcasting and communications industry. They have no substantive experience in journalism, broadcasting to media-at-risk countries, or human rights activism.
Surrogate Broadcasting Under Secret Police Pressure Does Not Work
Ted Lipien, president of media freedom nonprofit FreeMediaOnline.org, said that the combination of the BBG policies and the pressure and intimidation from the FSB, the secret police agency which replaced the KGB (Mr. Putin’s former employer), put U.S. government broadcasting resources in Russia and RFE/RL journalists in severe jeopardy. Lipien said that the comments RFE/RL managers made after Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder are a clear proof that the BBG strategy for broadcasting to Russia has affected RFE/RL programming. There is no reason to believe, Lipien said, 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, Lipien said.
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 also wrote a book about Pope John Paul II 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.
BBG’s Preference For Ratings-Driven Privatized Broadcasting Results In Giving Airtime to Racist Politicians
In a recent report posted on the Free Media Online Blog, Lipien wrote that 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. Recently, the Moscow Human Rights Bureau has 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 Radio Liberty for giving airtime to Mr. Savel’yev, the Russian human rights organization said Radio Liberty 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. Lipien said that it seems inconceivable that a broadcasting entity, which 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.
Can U.S. Broadcasting Be Saved?
There is some hope that the crisis in relations between Washington and Moscow may force the BBG to modify its preference for private surrogate broadcasters and reverse some of its policies and programming cuts. FreeMediaOnline.org president Ted Lipien said that in light of Vice President Cheney’s visists to Georgia and Ukraine and President Bush’s announcement of a $1 billion Georgian aid package, the positions taken by the BBG are hopelessly out of sync not only with the U.S. Congress but also with the White House and are unsustainable.
Others have also criticized the Broadcasting Board of Governors and called for putting an end to the dismantling of the Voice of America.
Read The World Still Needs the Voice of Americaby Helle Dale, The Heritage Foundation.
The Sound of Silence: The Decline of the Voice of America in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia by Helle C. Dale and Oliver Horn, The Heritage Foundation.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors is scheduled to meet next week. The question of whether to lift the bureaucratic jamming of the Voice of America Russian radio broadcasts, as well as the future of VOA broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine, are expected to be discussed.
Listen To The Last Voice of America Russian Radio Broadcast
Listen here to the last Voice of America on-air Russian radio broadcast delivered on July 26, 2008, just twelve days before Russia attacked Georgia.
View FreeMediaOnline.org Online Presentation SAVE VOICE OF AMERICA BROADCASTS
View FreeMediaOnline.org Online Presentation in support of saving Voice of America broadcasts to Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Tibet and other media-at-risk countries.
Several people contributed information and ideas for this article.