BBG Internet strategy downplays human rights reporting


Image from VOA Russian Service web post "What American women think about sex." Such stories are designed to beef up page views.

Image from VOA Russian Service web post "What American women think about sex." Such stories are designed to beef up page views.

An independent outside expert evaluation of the Voice of America (VOA) Russian news website content, ordered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which manages VOA and other U.S. government-funded radios, suggests that VOA is confused about its mission and fails to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda. The evaluator, a highly respected independent journalist who fights media censorship in Russia, believes there is a deliberate downplaying of human rights news coverage on the VOA Russian website. He also concluded that the VOA Russian Service has a “pro-Russia bias,” or more accurately, a “pro-Putin” bias, and relies too much on Russian sources. A separate internal VOA program review evaluation of the Russian website confirmed a strong desire on the part of the management to offer more coverage of non-political stories.
Free media advocates have long suspected that the BBG’s strategy in recent years has been focused on providing online content, which Internet users in Russia and China would not perceive as overly critical of their countries. As part of the strategy to attract new web users by making programs less controversial and eliminating shortwave radio broadcasts, the BBG has been laying off experienced reporters and replacing them with web content generators without much experience in human rights reporting or familiarity with Western journalistic standards. Reporters specializing in human rights issues were also forced out at the Russian Service of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe after private consultants hired by the BBG staff reported that Radio Liberty programs were viewed as too combative in Russia.
The BBG’s latest proposal is to end Voice of America radio and TV broadcasts (Mandarin and Cantonese) to China in favor of Internet-only news delivery. Free media advocates are concerned that BBG executives and program advisors will force the Voice of America Chinese Branch to follow a similar path as the VOA Russian Service, with layoffs of experienced journalists and downplaying of stories that might offend the communist regime.
VOA Russian on-the-air radio and TV broadcasts were terminated in July 2008. A VOA Chinese satellite TV program set for elimination has the largest number of members of U.S. Congress as studio guests among all VOA broadcasts. Many of the guests have been highly critical of human rights abuses in China.
An independent journalist in Russia specializing human rights reporting was asked by the BBG whether the Voice of America Russian website reported on controversial issues and offered opposing viewpoints. His response was a devastating critique:

Before answering this one, I would like to present some general considerations. It seems pretty obvious that, to put it mildly, today’s Russia has big problems with freedom of the press. Even in the Russian segment of the Internet, which is not controlled by the authorities as closely as big TV channels and much of the printed media, objective information and free comment on politically sensitive issues are not readily available. Therefore, in my view, VOA should primarily concentrate on such information and comment which are relatively hard to come by elsewhere for political reasons. This applies to thematic balance and to representation of various positions as well. Of course I don’t mean to say that Russian official positions on controversial issues could be ignored or underreported; however, it would seem fair that in news coverage and comment on such issues as YUKOS affair or human rights violations in the North Caucasus some kind of special consideration be given to alternative facts and viewpoints.
Now, my impression is that VOA has been too careful in avoiding anything that might look like ‘anti-Russian’ bias. A telling example of this attitude can be found in the coverage of Vice President Biden’s visit to Moscow. The reporting focused on Biden voicing support for Medvedev’s ‘modernization,’ traveling to Skolkovo etc., all of which was amply covered by national TV channels. But Vice President’s speech in Moscow University, in which he criticized Russia’s leadership on democracy and human rights, was clearly downplayed. The report on this event was titled ‘Joe Biden to Moscow Students: Future is Yours‘; a headline as cheerful as meaningless, reminding of Soviet newspapers. What is worse, the report failed to mention that Biden spoke about the Khodorkovsky case as an example of Russia’s ‘legal nihilism’ – an important fact noted both in Russia and abroad. One might suspect that the omission was deliberate. If so, that could be regarded as a case of ‘pro-Russian’ (or, rather, pro-Putin) bias.

The independent evaluator believes that the Voice of America, and by implication the Broadcasting Board of Governors, are confused about VOA’s mission and tries hard to impress upon BBG and VOA officials that the current mission statement of VOA’s Russian Service, which has no reference to human rights reporting or fighting censorship, may be not be appropriate for U.S. government-funded broadcasts to Russia.
Asked whether there is an appropriate selection of topics on the site, or too much political or non-political coverage, the independent journalist-evaluator questioned whether managers and editors understand the mission of U.S. international broadcasting to countries like Russia.

The answer to this question depends on how one understands VOA’s mission. As I see it, the purpose of the VOA Russian website is to provide objective information and free comment, especially where these are limited for political reasons, and to promote American (or, for that matter, universal) values, such as democracy, human rights etc. Based on this, I don’t see much sense in trying to produce a comprehensive picture of all kinds of events all over the world (something like a ‘complete body of all arts and sciences’ at the Academy of Lagado in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’). It appears to me that the site should mostly (by no means exclusively!) focus on selected fields, above all Russian domestic and foreign politics, American life and U.S.-Russian relations. This would imply that political coverage should generally dominate over non-political themes. After all, modern Russians, especially Internet users, are anything but short of information about current developments in science, arts, medicine and other non-political fields and it’s hard to imagine many people turning to VOA’s website for this sort of knowledge. Besides, the Science, Health and Culture sections of the site do not look appealing at all; they should be either revamped and improved or discarded, and the latter option seems more reasonable, let alone easier.

Asked whether the journalistic quality of the website is at a high professional and informational level, the independent Russian expert pointed out that VOA relies too much on Russian media sources.

My answer is ‘sorry but no’. The site provides information of satisfactory quality, but it is mostly derived from other sources. Even the report about American Vice President’s meeting with Russian opposition figures was based on Ekho Moskvy and Gazeta.Ru information (VOA’s own interview with Leonid Gozman was added later.) The selection of topics and timeliness leave much to be desired.

The independent Russian journalist noted that some topics, which the Kremlin does not like to see covered by the Russian media, are also underreported by VOA.

Regrettably, some interesting topics were underreported. Thus, the story of an alleged prisoner swap scheme involving Viktor Bout, which featured prominently in independent  Russian media (Kommersant and others), was only reflected in a brief news item ( ) based entirely on Russian sources; an American perspective one could have expected from VOA was lacking completely. The same can be said of the scandal involving Vladimir Putin, Western stars and charity money ( ): VOA’s website failed to provide any information or comment from the American side, missing a good opportunity to raise its profile.
As for the ‘market niche’ mentioned in the question, I’m afraid it can hardly be located at the moment.

The Russian journalist also questioned the overall usefulness of the VOA Russian website. Here is his response to the question: Does the content provided on this site increase understanding of topics or events, and does it provide a basis for forming opinions, making decisions and rendering judgments?

My general answer to this one would rather be negative. The site provides quite an amount of diverse information, but not all of it seems relevant to the interests of the audience. A clearer focus on specific issues linked to VOA’s mission is needed. Independent forming of opinions by users could also be encouraged by more perceptive comments by high-level contributors – this is where VOA’s competitive position is rather weak. There are few if any bright columns by good authors; the Poedinok (Single Combat) section ( ) is entirely about international politics, doesn’t seem appealing to users and is updated at a slow rate. The Editorial section ( ) appears somewhat more useful; I wish it carried more on human rights and democracy in Russia.
The site could potentially excel in offering objective information on different aspects of American life – especially where such information is ignored or distorted by Russian pro-government media. To give just one example: many Russians, even among the educated class, are convinced that all talk about freedom of the press in the U.S. is mere eyewash and media are effectively controlled by the government or business interests. Systematic exposure and refutation of such myths could be one of VOA’s main goals; however, the site doesn’t seem keen on this sort of work.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ management of U.S. international broadcasting will be discussed in a Congressional hearing, “Is America’s Overseas Broadcasting Undermining our National Interest and the Fight Against Tyrannical Regimes?,” scheduled for Wednesday, April 6 by Representative Dana Rohrebacher (R-CA), Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, under the chairmanship of Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. One of the invited speakers is BBG member S. Enders Wimbush, who has been strongly defending the BBG’s Internet-only strategy for the Voice of America in China, most recently in a scathing attack on Free Media Online president Ted Lipien for his op-ed in The Washington Times.

BBG member S. Enders Wimbush: Lipien writes that “the same group of BBG bureaucrats proposed reducing radio to Tibet” and “they cut VOA programs to Russia in 2008.” By “bureaucrats”, he presumably is referring to the BBG professional staff. A casual scan of Lipien’s past writings demonstrates his obsession that this small group of civil servants conspires successfully to manipulate the presidentially appointed board, even on issues that require the board’s authority, like realigning broadcasts. Apparently, in his view, the last appointed BBG had nothing to do with changes to broadcasting to Russia and proposals to change broadcasting to Tibet. It was all “the staff.” This narrative doesn’t pass the reality check. Here’s the real story: the current BBG, not the staff, agreed unanimously–Democrats and Republicans–to the realignment of U.S. broadcasting to China.

In commenting on Governor Wimbush’s response, Ted Lipien said that he is well aware that all current BBG members voted for the Internet-only strategy for VOA in China but does not believe the decision would have been made without a strong push from the BBG executive staff, which had tried earlier to reduce radio broadcasts to Tibet and had been responsible for ending VOA radio to Russia. After VOA radio to Russia was terminated just 12 days before the Russian military attack on the Republic of Georgia, BBG executives refused urgent pleas from VOA Russian Service journalists to resume radio broadcasts to the war zone and to Russia.
“Members of Congress should become familiar with the full text of the VOA Russian website content evaluation by an independent Russian journalist and prevent BBG executives from adopting the same model for China. It will result in downplaying human rights reporting, as it did in Russia, and will reduce VOA potential audience and impact. This is not a choice between radio and the Internet but a choice between maximizing impact through multimedia program delivery and the Internet-only model. The latter deliberately limits the audience in a country known for highly effective Internet censorship.” Lipien said.
This report was first published by Logo. Truckee, CA, USA, April 6, 2011.