Kremlin Can’t Pursue War Against Internet Without Hackers, Expert Says, But This Is No Consolation for Voice of America

Share: Logo. & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, September 29, 2008, San Francisco — The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ decision to prevent the Voice of America from being a broadcaster in Russia has destroyed VOA’s ability to have any significant impact on the Kremlin and the Russian public opinion. With its radio broadcasts silenced by the BBG just 12 days before the Russian military forces attacked Georgia, the VOA Russian Service website is now just one of hundreds of thousands of news websites and blogs in Russia. 
Window on EurasiaThis seems to be part of the BBG strategy to make VOA permanently insignificant and ineffective as a provider of political news to Russian-speaking audiences. To make sure the Voice of America does not retain any  broadcasting capabilities in the CIS countries, the BBG bureaucrats are preventing the Russian Service from producing any regularly scheduled radio or TV program even for placement on the Web. In addition to distribution over the Internet, such programs could be put  also on shortwave transmitters and on a still available AM frequency in Moscow.
The BBG executive director Jeff Trimble does not want this to happen as this would threaten the U.S.-funded broadcasting monopoly in Russia of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, his previous employer. BBG member Ted Kaufman, who was formerly Senator Biden’s chief of staff, does not want it to happen because RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state. They do not seem to care that RFE/RL’s independence and the security of its reporters have been seriously undermined by the BGG’s strategy to generate most of RFE/RL programming from the news bureau in Moscow right under the watchful eyes of the FSB, the successor to the KGB and Mr. Putin’s former employer.
I also doubt that the BBG staff is actually concerned that the Russian security services can easily block or sabotage the VOA Russian website. If they were, they would not have forced VOA to rely on a single website as its only program delivery option in Russia. Because of that, there is no reason for the Kremlin to consider the website as any kind of threat to Mr. Putin’s control over the domestic media, nor does the Kremlin consider Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a particular threat as long as RFE/RL in Russia remains under close observation by the FSB. The Russian security services know that most of RFE/RL reporters are Russian citizens who live in Russia with their families and can be monitored and intimidated. Broadcasting from Washington rather than Moscow and Prague, VOA could be more of a challenge to the authoritarian Russian rulers and their secret police apparatus than RFE/RL Russian broadcasts are in their current status.
How can Mr. Putin take the BBG, VOA director Dan Austin, and the remaining VOA Russian website seriously? Their message, repeated last week by the VOA director, is that Mr. Putin has won the battle. He has closed down most of VOA and RFE/RL radio affiliates and, therefore, VOA — but interestingly not RFE/RL — should get out of the radio business in Russia. The BBG and Dan Austin now realize that VOA relied too much on one program delivery strategy, i.e. the affiliate stations. But at least until July 26, VOA had several additional program delivery options in Russia: shortwave and Internet radio programs, satellite radio programs, satellite TV programs, Internet TV programs, and a website.
The BBG’s answer to the censorship and intimidation of affiliates in Russia is to have now only one program delivery option for VOA — an interactive new media website. There are already hundreds of thousands of such websites, and each one of them can be easily blocked. The VOA Russian website has nothing that makes it different from all the others, not even a regularly scheduled online radio program or a call-in show because the BBG staff will not allow it to happen. No wonder that the Kremlin is not concerned.
The Russian security services would not be able to completely stop VOA broadcasts if they were distributed using multiple delivery systems, including shortwave. The Internet is an important part of such a diversification strategy and should be used. It should not be, however, the only programming and program delivery option. As Paul Goble reports in Window on Eurasia, the Kremlin is capable of blocking and sabotaging unwanted websites with some help from willing hackers.
Dr. Paul Goble's Window on Eurasia. Window on Eurasia, September 27, 2008, Eagles Mere, PA –The Kremlin will not be able to close down Internet sites it doesn’t like without using hackers, either those working directly for its security services or those inspired by Moscow’s propaganda campaigns, according to a leading Russian specialist on that country’s intelligence services. Read more in Dr. Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia.