Citizen Journalists in Belarus Tell Election Story to Voice of America but VOA Fails to Deliver News Back to Belarus

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FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org Truckee, CA, USA, December 23, 2010 — Free Media Online Commentary: According to Voice of America Russian Service insiders, the rosy picture painted in the recent VOA press release on the media situation in Belarus during the disputed presidential elections may not be as good as it seems. The VOA press release makes a claim that “dramatic first-hand accounts of the government’s post-election crackdown are being seen and heard because of a special Voice of America effort to harness the growing power of social media.”
In reality, citizens in Belarus found most independent media websites inaccessible. Global Voices, a free media NGO reported, quoting Lenta.ru, that the Belarus government blocked all major social media (Gmail, Twitter, LiveJournal, Facebook) as well as opposition media outlets “Charter 97“, “Belarus Partizan“, and “Solidarity.” Problems with the internet and limited access to social media and opposition websites in Minsk were being reported throughout the day, said the media NGO. According to Global Voices, the government decided to block social media in order to prevent mass mobilization after the elections and following protests.
Global Voices also reported that Belarus users are being redirected to fake opposition websites: gazetaby.in, nnby.in, charter97.in, bchdd.in, belaruspartisan.in, euroradio.in, ucpb.in, svaboda.in. The design of all these websites is the same but the content is completely different from the original. All domains belong to “Belpak”, Belarus state-owned Internet provider.
The claims in the VOA press release seems especially suspect in light of the reports of Internet blockage and cyber attacks. Read Hal Roberts’ report from from The Berkman Center for Internet & Society INDEPENDENT MEDIA SITES IN BELARUS REPORTEDLY HIJACKED DURING ELECTION
The Voice of America could have played a major role delivering news and information to Belarus by radio, but it did not have that capability due to bad planning and mismanagement at its parent agency.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, BBG, which manages VOA, terminated VOA Russian FM, shortwave and medium wave radio broadcasts in 2008, just 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia. Such radio broadcasts, especially medium wave (AM) from transmitters in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia, which cannot be easily blocked, would have been extremely useful during the emergency in Belarus or any other type of crisis, also in Russia.
According to VOA insiders, citizen journalists were able to tell their news to a VOA reporter on the ground, but the Voice of America was unable to deliver the news back to Belarus because it lacked effective program delivery when faced with the blockage of the Internet by the regime in Minsk. If a similar emergency happened in Russia and the Kremlin decided to block the Internet, the Voice of America Russian Service would likewise be unable to deliver news to Russia. This already happened once during President Obama’s official visit to Moscow when the VOA website was unavailable for two full days due to a cyber attack.
Before, during, and after the presidential elections, the authorities in Belarus managed to establish tight control over the Internet and phone communications. VOA insiders claim that there was no significant communication between VOA in Washington and citizens in Belarus and that increased VOA Russian Service web traffic came not from Belarus but from the United States, Western and Central Europe — and from Russia, where the BBG has been spending large amounts of money advertising the VOA Russian Service website.
If there is a crisis in Russia or another Russian military attack on a neighboring country similar to the attack on Georgia, and the Kremlin blocks the Internet or launches cyber attacks, the examples of Belarus in 2010 and Georgia 2008 show that without radio the Voice of America has no means to deliver news and information in Russian to a crisis area. VOA insiders point out that it is not the VOA’s mission to provide news and information over the Internet to the United States and Western Europe.
As Global Voices pointed out, citizen reports were filed but they were not widely distributed due to the blockage of the Internet and social media. With its radio broadcasts terminated in 2008 by the BBG in favor of using the Internet and social media, the VOA Russian Service had no emergency plans for delivering its news to Belarus.

GLOBAL VOICES: Problems with the internet and limited access to social media and opposition websites in Minsk were being reported throughout the day, too (see earlier GV updates by Alexey Sidorenko – here, here, and here). Evgeny Mor (see earlier GV updates by Alexey Sidorenko – here, here, and here). Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov), who is currently in Belarus, tweeted that he couldn’t “access anything using https.” In another tweet, posted Sunday afternoon, he wrote:
I also hear that since access to Gmail in Belarus is blocked, opposition sites can’t use their mailing lists
Still, citizen media reports were being filed before, during and after the events in the center of Minsk.

The VOA press release below should be compared with the reports above and below from Global Voices. Keeping the VOA staff informed in Washington and putting news items online — something that anybody with access to a website can do — does not translate into informing an audience in Belarus. Unlike the Voice of America, Global Voices told the whole truth about its ability to deliver Internet and social media content. Individuals and NGOs did a much better job of citizen reporting from Belarus at a fraction of the cost than did the Voice of America, which has spent millions of dollars on new media. VOA’s advantage would have been in having effective, blockage-proof program delivery using AM, shortwave, and even FM radio signals from neighboring countries. Individuals and NGOs are not able to develop and maintain such program delivery. Unfortunately, the BBG and its executive staff bureaucrats eliminated VOA’s ability to respond to political emergencies in countries like Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Those reading the VOA press release should also consider the BBC news report that — with only a small fraction of people in Belarus having regular access to the internet — the authorities there are not too worried.

GLOBAL VOICES BELARUS: Belarus government blocked all major social media (Gmail, Twitter, LiveJournal, Facebook) as well as opposition media outlets “Charter 97“, “Belarus Partizan“, and “Solidarity“, Lenta.ru reported [RUS]. The government decided to block social media in order to prevent mass mobilization after today’s elections and following protests.

Voice of America Press Release
Citizen Journalists in Belarus Tell Election Story to VOA
Washington, D.C., December 22, 2010 – A new breed of citizen journalist has emerged in Belarus, and dramatic first-hand accounts of the government’s post-election crackdown are being seen and heard because of a special Voice of America effort to harness the growing power of social media.
Visits to the VOA Russian Service website rose dramatically in the aftermath of Sunday’s controversial election and the government’s suppression of dissent. More than 140,000 visits were recorded at the VOA site (http://www.voanews.com/russian/news/), which is posting eyewitness reports on a special “crowdsourcing map.”
The citizen journalist reports, received through email and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, are carefully screened and verified by VOA journalists, who have sifted through thousands since last Friday.
VOA Director Danforth Austin says the Russian Service’s carefully planned use of “crowdsourcing” is a “textbook example of how citizen journalists can help VOA provide accurate first-hand coverage of an event and complement the work of our journalists in the field.” By using new media in a thoughtful way, Austin says, “We have been able to engage in a conversation with our audience and tell the world what they are saying and experiencing.”
VOA Russian Service coverage of the Belarus election also included a dramatic interview with presidential candidate Andrey Sannikov, who was arrested and badly beaten. He and 17 other prominent Belarusian opposition leaders have been accused of inciting mass riots and face the possibility of long prison terms. No media has had access to Sannikov since his arrest.
VOA Russian Service editors say that in addition to an increase in traffic to the website, the use of social media platforms and “crowdsourcing” has also triggered an unprecedented number of references to VOA Russian content on influential Russian and Belarusian websites.
The Voice of America, which first went on the air in 1942, is a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  VOA broadcasts approximately 1,500 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 123 million people.  Programs are produced in 44 languages and are intended exclusively for audiences outside of the United States.
For more information, please call VOA Public Relations at (202) 203-4959, or e-mail us at askvoa@voanews.com.

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