America's Silenced Voice Abroad – A Journalist Remembers the Broadcasting Board of Governors Early Moves to Outsource Voice of America International Programs to Private Contractors
Miro Dobrovodsky passed away on July 23, 2009.
FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, March 25, 2009, San Francisco — Miro Dobrovodsky, one of the best journalists who came to the U.S. from Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War to escape media censorship in their native countries, sent me an email pointing out that the process of silencing the Voice of America had started several years before the latest actions of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) aimed at further outsourcing and privatizing of U.S. international broadcasting. His email was a reminder that Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine are only among the latest countries, to which VOA broadcasts were targeted by the BBG for elimination so that U.S. taxpayers’ money could flow more easily to private contractors and the private Alhurra Television network for the Middle East favored by BBG members, both Republicans and Democrats.
The BBG’s marketing strategy in the Muslim world has already been declared a failure in an academic study and by many independent journalists and Middle East experts. President Obama wisely avoided Alhurra in sending his first televised message to Arabic-speaking audiences. (Among other scandals, Alhurra Television gave extensive coverage to statements by Holocaust deniers who met at an international conference in Tehran.)
Miro reminded us that before the BBG took VOA radio broadcasts to Russia and Ukraine off the air last year — an action that in Russia caused an unprecendented 98% decline in annual audience reach from 10.3% in 2007 to 0.2% in 2009 (est.) — the bipartisan board several years earlier had ended VOA broadcasts to the three Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) and seven other Central and East European nations. They were among the first victims of the BBG’s intense dislike of the Voice of America and its mission of representing America to the world in a serious, objective and authoritative manner.
In their eagerness to please neoconservative ideologues ignorant and disdainful of Arab and Islamic culture, BBG members were not really concerned who would credibly speak for America in the Middle East or anywhere else, and if they were, they had absolutely no idea what works and what does not outside of their narrow Washington and commercial perspective. As a result of their actions, VOA could not offer a platform to present President Obama’s first message to the Arab audience because — as incredible as it may sound — the Voice of America no longer has any Arabic-language programs. BBG members made sure that all such VOA programs were eliminated. They should have known but were unable to comprehend that Alhurra, as designed by them, could not possibly be a credible news source in the Middle East.
The Voice of America became a target for the BBG because it was subject to far more stringent federal regulations and journalistic standards than the privatized broadcasters also being funded by U.S. taxpayers. Contractors and associates of BBG members could not only find better employment opportunities at these private entities than at the Voice of America but, with only some exceptions, these private broadcasters were also far less likely to resist simplistic marketing and propaganda ideas generated by the BBG members themselves.
Miro Dobrovodsky and other East European journalists at VOA got a bitter taste of the BBG’s strategies and marketing ideas several years before they were used against VOA services broadcasting to Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and several other countries. This is what Miro wrote in his email:
“I’m sure some overactive bureaucrats will soon delete from VOA servers everything remaining from its past. They have already deleted almost everything on servers…, including some historically important files, both Czech & Slovak. And Polish. And Hungarian. And. And Slovene. Perhaps Russian and Ukrainian. You name it. … must look forward, not backwards. Amen.”
Norman Pattiz is a former BBG member who was instrumental in pushing for the creation of private broadcasting to the Middle East and the elimination of many VOA broadcasting services. Another former BBG member, Edward E. Kaufman, now a U.S. Senator from Delaware, led the effort to end VOA radio programs to Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. Ironically, they are both Democrats and friends of Vice President Joe Biden. But the Republican BBG members, with only one exception, eagerly supported Mr. Pattiz’s vision of privatized broadcasting to the Muslim world and the assault on the Voice of America broadcasts. VOA Russian-language radio programs were taken off the air 12 days before Russia’s armed forces invaded Georgia last summer.
It is clear from this 2004 Voice of America report about Miro Dobrovodsky that journalists like him were not only highly respected by their overseas audiences but were also effective in establishing a dialogue with the local media and were able to accurately present American views and values. Many of the privatized broadcasters favored by the BBG are now based overseas. Some of them, like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), operate now in part from a bureau in Moscow located within a close reach of the Kremlin’s secret police — a problem that the BBG has chosen to ignore when it made its decision to end VOA radio to Russia from Washington. Like Alhurra, RFE/RL is also trying to please its audience and the BBG’s executive staff which tells them to focus on generating higher ratings despite the Kremlin’s largely effective campaign to restrict rebroadcasts of RFE/RL, VOA, BBC, DW, and RFI programs in Russia and to silence journalists who dare to question some of the abuses of power by Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev. RFE/RL was criticized last year by a Russian human rights organization for giving extensive airtime to a Russian politician known for his racist views and verbal attacks on immigrants. The group warned that such broadcasts encourage violence.
Such compromises in pursuing higher ratings at the cost of journalistic and ethical values would have been unacceptable to VOA journalists like Miro Dobrovodsky. I’m glad that this 2004 VOA report about his journalistic career has been saved from the delete button of the BBG bureaucrats. FreeMediaOnline.org was also able to save recordings of the last VOA on-air radio programs to Russia and Ukraine. We have also developed a Russian-language web site, GovoritAmerika.us, which offers news analysis from multiple U.S. government and nongovernment sources to compensate for the budget cuts and restrictions imposed on VOA by the BBG. The website is run by volunteers and receives no public funding.
ГоворитАмерика.us – Всесторонний Анализ Новостей из США
The following is a Voice of America report.
A VOA Journalist Looks Back
09 April 2004
The Voice of America in late February  ceased broadcasting in ten East European languages: Bulgarian, Estonian, Czech, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Rumanian, Slovenian and Slovak. Today on New American Voices, Miro Dobrovodsky, a journalist who spent 15 years directing VOA’s broadcasts to former Czechoslovakia and later to Slovakia, looks back on the work of his service, and on his own journey from Slovakia to America.
Miro Dobrovodsky, a big, burly man whose square face is framed by curly red hair and a greying red beard, says he has no doubt that VOA’s broadcasts contributed to the Velvet Revolution which brought down communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989.
|Receiving VOA Excellence in Programming Awards|
“Oh, definitely. Definitely. Everybody says so. We even got awards from Slovakia. I personally got the Silver Medal of Freedom from the Slovak President because of what the Voice of America did. We kept people aware that not only something different is possible, but there are people already working for it.”
In its broadcasts in Slovak to what until the so-called “Velvet Divorce” of 1993 was Czechoslovakia, Miro Dobrovodsky says VOA’s greatest contribution was providing news – news not only about what was happening in the world, but in the country itself. Under communist rule, the press was in the service of the state, and barred from reporting information about dissenting views or the activities of dissidents. So it fell to international broadcasters like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and others to provide the other side of the picture: the protests, the charters, the petitions in support of human rights and freedom.
|Czech President and former dissident Vaclav Havel thanking VOA|
“There were signatories for freedom. At that time, that was the kind of journalism… Under normal circumstances, it is not news if you are reading 25 names. But behind the Iron Curtain, if you read twenty-five names of people who had signed something against the regime, it was hot stuff, and a major story.”
To illustrate the importance of VOA’s news to the Slovak and Czech audiences, Mr. Dobrovodsky quotes a friend who returned from a visit to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, when it was still under the communist regime. His friend recalled that as he walked through the city night, a familiar tune – VOA’s old “Yankee Doodle” station I.D. – caught his ear:
|As a young reporter in Bratislava, ca. 1966|
“He said that he was walking in a new quarter of town, high-rises, you know, and at 9 PM he heard Yankee Doodle in stereo. And I said to him that we aren’t broadcasting in stereo. And he says, ‘No, no, no, but it’s August, every window is open, and when you hear it from a thousand windows, even quietly, it sounds like Yankee Doodle in stereo.’”
Journalism has been Miro Dobrovodsky’s life-long passion. He started writing at 13, and in his teens became the movie reviewer for a local weekly in northern Slovakia. His plans to study journalism were thwarted initially because his father was not a communist party member. Eventually he did graduate from Bratislava University’s Faculty of Journalism, and found a job in one of Slovakia’s foremost news magazines, Zivot. After some professional ups and downs, brought on by his own refusal to join the communist party, Mr. Dobrovodsky found himself again reporting for Zivot during what became known as the Prague Spring of 1968 – the short period of liberalization under Communist Party boss Alexander Dubcek.
“So we started very aggressively writing about subjects which over here, in the western world, are normal – to be critical even of the party, to be critical of local government. Until then it was taboo, this kind of subject.”
The Prague Spring ended on August 21, 1968, when Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and brought liberalization to a bloody end. For two weeks, Mr. Dobrovodsky edited an underground newspaper, publishing news, pictures, and statements about what was happening in the country. He believed it was just a matter of time before the state police arrested him, so when the border to Austria opened, he fled to the West with his wife and three small children. Mr. Dobrodovsky spent several years as a refugee in Canada, where he found work as a photographer, in an oil refinery, on a car assembly line, and finally in the Slovak service of Radio Canada International. Eventually he was hired by the Voice of America and moved to Washington.
At VOA, Miro Dobrovodsky says, he found satisfying work in all aspects of journalism. He reported on news events, interviewed newsmakers, emceed programs, maintained contact with colleagues in Slovakia and other countries, participated in training a new generation of Slovak journalists, developed a network of affiliated FM stations in Slovakia that rebroadcast the VOA Slovak programs. And though he notes that the media situation in Slovakia and other East European countries has much improved, he still regrets VOA’s decision to end its broadcasts to this part of the world.
|Interviewing Alexander Dubcek|
“When one is following their newspapers, their journalism, they… as we all know, each story may have different pegs, or different ideas, I mean one story can illustrate many different points. And it’s still true. Nobody’s lying, not even them. For example, now when we’re talking about Iraq and Afghanistan and Al Qaeda and all that stuff, most of the stories over there they are going after casualties, and to put some, I feel, negative light on the United States. And not necessarily to pick up what is important from our point of view. In other words, we can write two lines, or seven lines, and completely differently – and this is what VOA was doing: adding to their story, our story. And it is not opinion, it is not propaganda, it’s just a different point of view, and a different mirror.”
Voice of America broadcaster Miro Dobrovodsky, who headed VOA’s Czechoslovak and later Slovak services during almost two decades of tumultuous and historic change in his native country.