Reporters Without Borders Protests Restrictions on International Broadcasts in Azerbaijan; Voice of America Also Threatened By Its Own Broadcasting Board of Governors
FreeMediaOnline.org and Free Media Online Blog November 5, 2008, San Francisco — The worldwide press freedom organization, Reporters Without Borders, has sent a letter to President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev appealing to him to intervene after the National Broadcasting Council announced it planned to take three foreign radios stations off the FM band by 2009. They are the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA).
Reporters Without Borders said in its November 3rd letter that it was “dismayed” by these “shocking statements” by the council’s chairman, Nushirvan Magerramli, announcing the bans on October 31st.
Reporters Without Borders believes that if the Azeri government carries out its threat, BBC, RFE/RL, and VOA will continue to broadcast on short wave. The organization pointed out that these international broadcasters “would be able to broadcast on short wave as happened during the Soviet era. It would only have the effect of lowering the quality of reception for listeners,” but the radios would not disappear, Reporters Without Borders said in its statement.
Voice of America journalists and media freedom organizations are concerned, however, that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan body which oversees VOA and RFE/RL, will use the excuse of the crackdown on FM rebroadcasting in Azerbaijan to shut down the production in Washington of all VOA Azeri radio programs.
There is a precedent for such an action on the part of the BBG, which now has six members split between Democrats and Republicans. The former BBG chairman James K. Glassman, a Republican who is now the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, had justified the recent termination of VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts by claiming that Mr. Putin’s campaign of closing down VOA FM affiliates made all VOA radio vernacular language broadcasting to Russia ineffective, including short wave radio. For various political and bureaucratic reasons, most other Republican members and all Democrats serving on the BBG have supported Glassman’s position. This view has been widely rejected, however, by members of Congress of both parties, foreign policy experts, and media freedom organizations.
FreeMediaOnline.org, a media freedom nonprofit based in San Francisco, had reported that several BBG members and the BBG staff led by its executive director Jeff Trimble, a former acting president of RFE/RL, have been working behind the scenes to divert money from Voice of America broadcasts to Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine to fund the scandal-ridden Alhurra television for the Middle East and to strengthen Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasting to Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. In cutting VOA Russian radio Trimble was said to have received support from the Senate staff of the vice-president elect Joe Biden. RFE/RL is a semi-private entity incorporated in Delaware and based in Prague, the Czech Republic. It has a large bureau in Moscow whose employees according to reports are subject to pressure and intimidation from the Russian secret police. Voice of America is based in Washington, D.C. and most of its employees work in the United States. BBG member Ted Kaufman is a former chief of staff to Senator Biden.
Read: ProPublica.org article USC Study of Alhurra Withheld From Public; Inquiries of Network’s Operation Deepen
Despite warnings from Congress and human rights organizations, the BBG terminated VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts just 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia and also wanted to end VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine. VOA employees are concerned that the BBG staff will respond the same way to the most recent crisis in Azerbaijan.
The BBG has temporarily suspended its plans to end VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine but VOA radio programs to Russia have not resumed as they were before the Russian invasion to Georgia. The BBG staff had also prevented VOA from producing Russian-language radio programs for the web, but relented after strong criticism from Congress and media freedom organizations. Last month a half-hour radio program was placed on the VOA Russian-language website as a Monday-through-Friday broadcast.
However, the audio of the VOA radio program for the Internet has not been updated for nearly a week. The day after the U.S. presidential elections it still featured a number of reports on pre-election campaign and polls. At the urgings of the former BBG chairman James Glassman and the BBG staff, the VOA Russian service is now producing short video clips for placement on its website and blogs. It is now difficult to find on the Russian-language VOA website any in-depth analysis or even a summary of President-elect Obama’s views on Mr. Putin’s and Mr. Medvedev’s Russia and U.S.-Russian relations. There are, however, plenty of short video reports, which include brief and superficial interviews with individual American voters giving their overall impressions of the two candidates. In one of them, the service featured a young African-American voter who was a McCain supporter without explaining that the African-American community was overwhelmingly supporting Senator Obama. Glassman, an enthusiast of web contests and other short-format for-web-video, is perhaps best known for co-writing the book Dow 36,000, published in 1999, which predicted that the stock market was greatly undervalued and would at least triple within a few years.
The production of serious analysis of U.S. politics and foreign policy had largely ended with the termination of VOA Russian radio broadcasts in late July. Critics of the BBG strategy as pursued by Glassman and Trimble have argued that it has dangerously undermined the U.S. ability to communicate with audiences in Russia and in the former Soviet republics on serious political issues. FreeMediaOnline.org president Ted Lipien has called on the BBG to restore VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, to expand political reporting, and to refrain from any cuts in VOA and RFE/RL radio programs to Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.