Radio Free Europe or Radio Free Putin?
Did BBG End U.S. Surrogate Broadcasting in Russia on Radio Liberty in an Attempt to Appease Mr. Putin and Pursue Its Marketing Strategy?
FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, December 30, 2008, San Francisco — FreeMediaOnline.org has been reporting in recent months on the intimidation of Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) journalists in Russia and the unwillingness of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to address this issue. Years after Mr. Putin has destroyed nearly all independent broadcast media in Russia, the BBG, which manages Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), still insists that the station is a surrogate broadcaster and its journalists based in Russia can do their jobs without being subject to blackmail by the Russian security services. The bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors controls all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN)—Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television. Its current members are: Joaquin F. Blaya, Blanquita Walsh Cullum, D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, Steven J. Simmons, and Condoleezza Rice.
Comments by Radio Liberty managers in Russia and current program content suggest, however, that the station tries to stay on the good side of Mr. Putin in order to protect its bureau in Moscow and a large team of local reporters who are Russian citizens. It is difficult to determine exactly how widespread this problem has become for RFE/RL journalists based in Russia. Local RFE/RL employees must observe Russian laws regarding internal security, including a ban on revealing that they may be victims of intimidation by the secret police.
As Radio Liberty’s Russian radio programs were becoming more innocuous in recent years due to pressures from the BBG to make them sound more acceptable to anti-Western Russians in the interest of pursuing the questionable marketing goal of “marrying the mission to the market,” Voice of America journalists based in Washington have tried to offer more hard-hitting news and comments and thus serve the role of a surrogate radio broadcaster that RFE/RL is no longer able to play in Russia. This year, however, the BBG made good on its threat to end all VOA Russian radio broadcasts and implemented its decision just 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia last summer. When the war started, the Voice of America was prevented by the BBG from broadcasting Russian radio programs. The two now former BBG members who were most responsible for this public diplomacy and foreign policy blunder were James K. Glassman, the BBG’s most recent neoconservative chairman who is now the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and liberal Democrat, Edward E. Kaufman, who was subsequently appointed to succeed Vice President elect Joe Biden as a U.S. Senator from Delaware.
The original BBG marketing strategy was developed in the early years of the George W. Bush Administration by another liberal Democrat Norman Pattiz, founder of the U.S. radio syndicate Westwood One, who was the architect of privatizing U.S. broadcasting to the Middle East and terminating Voice of America radio services. His vision produced similar programming scandals at Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television. Only one BBG member was reported to have voted against ending VOA radio broadcasts to Russia.
In a letter to U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, Lev Roitman, a former Radio Liberty Russian service broadcaster, has described a recent example of how Radio Liberty continues to fail in its mission to expose Mr. Putin’s anti-democratic rule. Mr. Roitman’s wife, Snjezana Pelivan, is one of the two two foreign RFE/RL female employees (the other employee, Anna Karapetyan, is the mother of three minors) who are suing RFE/RL for violations of their labor, civil and human (national equality) rights when their were dismissed from their jobs in the Czech Republic, where RFE/RL has its headquarters.
A national Czech newspaper described the RFE/RL’s treatment of its foreign employees as offering them “equality with preconditions” and engaging in a practice that “contradicts ideals” of American democracy. Former Czech president Vaclav Havel has promised to follow this case as a human rights issue. RFE/RL has its headquarters in the Czech Republic. Senator Brownback has sponsored a bill that would reform U.S. public diplomacy and eliminate the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG is ultimately responsible for RFE/RL’s policies with regard to its employees in the Czech Republic and in Russia and for the content of Radio Liberty’s Russian broadcasts.
From Lev Roitman’s letter to U.S. Senator Sam Brownback:
In 1973 I emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. I worked for RFE/RL over thirty years in New York, Munich and Prague until my retirement as a senior commentator four years ago. I was with this Radio when the Soviets and their satellites jammed our broadcasts without having a lunch break, and I lived through the heady days when the Soviet jazz stopped and WE effectively contributed to the fall of that indeed evil empire.
I was always proud to contribute to RFE/RL mission of furthering the goals of American foreign policy. However, when five years ago BBG came up with the idea “to marry mission to the market”, I stopped being proud.
Step dancing on air still goes on. The results in the remaining traditional target areas of RFE/RL, in Russia, Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union, are devastating:
shrinking disinterested audiences;
loss of disappointed rebroadcasting affiliates
(do not be mistaken or mislead: this loss is only partially attributable to the attitudes of local officialdoms);
loss of human rights emphasis (“unmarketable”);
lip service to U.S. foreign affairs (“unpopular”);
fear of sustained critical analysis of local politics (“unpatriotic”), etc.
Just to give you one (but not the only one) example of the level where the married to the market RFE/RL is today. On November 17, its Russian service polled the audience with the following questions posted on its site Svobodanews.ru (I translate from Russian):
“Why the democratic parties in Russia had fallen into decay?
They simply finished their life cycle,
They lost competition against the adepts of power politics,
Their leaders suffered [from] moral bankruptcy,
Western leaders defamed in the eyes of Russians the very idea of democracy,
All of the above” Period.
No other actionable choices were offered. Say,
“They were barred from access to mass media”,
“They were stripped of financial resources”,
“Their leaders and members were harassed by authorities”,
“Media that was to them sympathetic, had been silenced by physical and/or political repression”, etc.
One is left to wonder if it is Radio Free Europe or Radio Free Putin — at the U.S. tax[payer’s ]expense.