Independent US Bloggers Beat Voice of America and Radio Liberty in Delivering Uncensored News to Russia
FreeMediaOnline.org, Free Media Online Blog, GovoritAmerika.us, September 6, 2009, San Francisco — Neither the Voice of America nor Radio Liberty, both US government-funded international broadcasters, provided Internet users and radio listeners with a Russian translation of an article about Vladimir Putin which sparked a major controversy over censorship both in Russia and in the US. Conde Nast, the publisher of “GQ” magazine, reportedly banned the article from being printed in Russia because it is highly critical of Prime Minister Putin and suggests that Russian security services engaged in criminal activities to help him become an authoritarian ruler. The article was published only in the US edition of “GQ.”
While the two radio stations funded by US taxpayers to broadcast news for audiences abroad largely ignored the story, independent bloggers in the US volunteered to translate the article into Russian in a grass-root effort to combat press censorship. A popular New York news site Gawker posted their translations under the Russian title: “Вы можете прочитать запрещенную статью GQ про Путина здесь” (“Hey, you can read the forbidden GQ article about Putin here”)
US public broadcaster National Public Radio (NPR) reported Friday that Condé Nast prohibited republishing of the article, “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power” by veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson, in any of its magazines outside of the US, including Russia. According to NPR reporter David Folkenflik, Condé Nast also prevented the article from being posted on the “GQ” website in the U.S. The NPR report “Why ‘GQ’ Doesn’t Want Russians To Read Its Story,” quotes from a July 23 e-mail sent by one of the company’s top lawyers.
“Condé Nast management has decided that the September issue of U.S. GQ magazine containing Scott Anderson’s article ‘Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power’ should not be distributed in Russia,” the lawyer wrote.
According to NPR, Condé Nast “ordered that the article could not be posted to the magazine’s Web site. No copies of the American edition of the magazine could be sent to Russia or shown in any country to Russian government officials, journalists or advertisers. Additionally, the piece could not be published in other Condé Nast magazines abroad, nor publicized in any way,” NPR correspondent David Folkenflik reported.
Gawker has called the actions of Condé Nast executives “an act of publishing cowardice.” In addition to protecting their business interests in Russia, Condé Nast executives may have also been concerned about the safety of their Russian employees. Journalists who had written articles critical of the Kremlin have been murdered in recent years by unknown assailants. Most journalists in Russia practice self-censorship and because of the atmosphere of fear would not dare to write articles highly critical of Prime Minister Putin. Russian and Western-owned media outlets are also concerned that cyber attacks will disable their websites if their reporting displeases the Kremlin and its security services, which are known for being able to launch such attacks.
The censored “GQ” article deals with a series of bombings at apartment buildings that killed hundreds of people in Russia in 1999. The anti-terrorist campaign that followed the attacks helped Vladimir Putin to consolidate his power. In writing his article, Scott Anderson relied on information from Mikhail Trepashkin, a former Russian intelligence officer who investigated the bombings. Trepashkin suggests a possible link between the bombings and Russian officials who were interested in increasing Mr. Putin’s powers in running the country. Russian officials have always denied these charges as a complete fabrication and blame the bombings on Chechen terrorists.
After issuing its appeal for help, Gawker was posting parts of the Russian translation of the article as soon as they received them from volunteer translators. Gawker reported that the translation was completed by Sunday afternoon.
The speed with which independent bloggers in the US responded in making the text of the censored article available to Internet users in Russia was in stark contrast to how this story was handled by the two main US-government funded broadcasters responsible for delivering news in Russian. The Russian-language websites of Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the Voice of America (VOA) did not post any in-depth reports about the censorship controversy and neither provided any online excerpts from the article.
This has been the latest example of serious problems at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages both VOA and RFE/RL. The BBG terminated Voice of America Russian radio broadcasts in July 2008, just 12 days before the Russian military launched an attack on Georgia over a territorial dispute. The BBG has also cut funding for the VOA Russian Service staff still assigned to maintain a news website. Largely as a result of these moves, VOA’s annual audience reach in Russia has registered a 98% decline and is now estimated to be only 0.2%.
A Russian Service journalist, who wants to remain anonymous because VOA broadcasters are not authorized to speak to outside media, told FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit, that many experienced journalists have left or have been forced out. The source said that there was nobody available Friday who would have been capable of producing an in-depth report on this story. According to the same source, none of the managers was able to write a report since they don’t speak Russian at all or not well enough to be able to post to the web. The management, according to this source, has hired some private contractors to maintain the Russian Service website and produce video clips, but they are incapable of professional reporting in Russian. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has rated the Broadcasting Board of Governors as one of the worst-managed Federal agencies. The broadcaster said that the few remaining Russian-speaking professional journalists at VOA are completely demoralized.
Radio Liberty, based in Prague, the Czech Republic, and in Moscow, has many more reporters and still receives much greater funding than the Russian Service of the Voice of America, which is based in Washington, D.C. FreeMediaOnline.org contacts familiar with RFE/RL believe that Radio Liberty reporters and managers are also practicing self-censorship because of justifiable fear that they or their family members might become targets of reprisals from the Kremlin’s secret police. Many RFE/RL reporters are Russian citizens living in Russia and those working at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague have family members in Russia and travel there frequently. The RFE/RL English-language website did carry an extensive report on the “GQ” story and issues of censorship, but the English site is not widely read in Russia and its main purpose is to help generate more Congressional support and funding for RFE/RL. What matters in Russia, FreeMediaOnline.org analysts said, is what appears on the Russian-language Radio Liberty website.
Not unlike the management’s interference with journalistic freedom at Condé Nast, both RFE/RL and VOA have been pressured by BBG strategic planners and private consultants, some of whom had business operations in Russia and links to BBG members (some of the BBG members involved in these decisions also had business interests in Russia) to make their reporting less critical of the Kremlin (the phrased used by the consultants was “anti-Russian”) in an effort to gain a wider audience among those Russians who are anti-Western and pro-Putin. A former director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service Mario Corti, Italian journalist, management consultant for a major electronic media outlet in Russia and author of books about Russian culture, was forced out for resisting these pressures. Radio Liberty’s audience in Russia has declined significantly since his departure and the change of programming philosophy.
The non-Russian management’s editorial pressure on the Voice of America Russian Service journalistic staff to offer more popular culture programming was also evident in the web content produced over the Labor Day weekend. While the “GQ” censorship story was barely mentioned, VOA website had more than one story about Michael Jackson, a story about US Open tennis matches, and even a story about retirement reforms in the US.
Only a few years ago, it would have been highly unusual for Voice of America and Radio Liberty not to broadcast in-depth reports about such a significant case of press censorship and not to offer extensive excerpts from the banned article. Media freedom activists familiar with the BBG’s strategy and management in recent years are not surprised, however, that independent bloggers and other volunteers are now having to do the work previously done by US government-funded broadcasters who still receive millions of US taxpayers money every year.
Largely in response to the BBG-ordered program cuts and restrictions in news coverage for Russian-speaking audiences, FreeMediaOnline.org volunteers have launched a Russian-language multi-source news analysis website GovoritAmerika.us. The website, which receives no public funding, has provided links to the Russian translation of the “GQ” article banned in Russia.