Unilateral Disarmament: How the West Has Destroyed its Broadcasting to Russia
A significant and well-researched analysis of Western broadcasting in Russia, written by British-Russian journalist, translator, writer and former BBC broadcaster Masha Karp, was published on the website of the UK-based Rights in Russia NGO.
Her previous article on this subject, “The Radiant Digital Future,” was also published by Rights in Russia in November 2012.
Unilateral Disarmament: How the West Has Destroyed its Broadcasting to Russia
26 March 2013
By Masha Karp
Masha Karp is a trustee of Rights in Russia and a London-based freelance journalist with a special interest in relations between Russia and the West.
Her articles have been published by The Independent, Standpoint, The Spectator, Open Democracy, The Common Review, and in Russian by Inostrannaya Literatura.
Masha was Russian Features editor (1997-2009) and previously a producer (1991-1997) with the BBC Russian Service. Her programmes on cultural, political and social issues are available here. She also produced, presented and participated in Radio 4 and the BBC World Service radio programmes in English (including Crossing Continents, Word of Mouth, New Europe, Assignment, Pick of the World and Outlook) and in the live BBC World Television show Europe Direct. Masha is a translator of English and German poetry and prose into Russian and has published translations of many writers, including Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Jennings, Alice Munro, Andreas Griffius and Nicolaus Lenau, as well as articles on translation. She is a member of the St Petersburg Writers’ Union and the Literary Translators Guild in Russia and a member of the UK Chartered Institute of Linguists. She is chair of the Pushkin Club in Britain.
Rights in Russia was established in the United Kingdom on 19 January 2010, the first anniversary of the killings in Moscow of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, as a charitable organization with the mission to provide information about human rights in Russia in the English language and to support in other appropriate ways the work of human rights organizations based in the Russian Federation. For more information visit their website here.[/aside]
As I write, the story of what seems to be the final chapter in the destruction of independent voices coming to Russia from abroad is not yet over. There is a slight chance that the decisions taken by the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) management in the autumn of 2012, which dealt a lethal blow to its Russian Service, may still be reversed. A huge outcry from Russia forced the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which supervises RFE/RL as part of US-government-funded international broadcasting, to hold a special meeting in mid‑December 2012. As a result, a six-month review into “the reforms” of the Russian Service was ordered. RFE/RL President Steven Korn, who masterminded them, resigned on 1st January 2013 “for family reasons” and two weeks later Kevin Klose was appointed as the acting President and CEO of RFE/RL. Time will show whether he’ll be able to revive the radio station, which has recently marked its 60th anniversary. However, this is what has happened so far.
In November 2012, at the height of Putin’s clampdown on the opposition after the 2011-2012 protests, a ban on radio stations with more than 50% of foreign ownership broadcasting in Russia, came into force. Although the amendment to existing media legislation was first introduced back in 2011 and the RFE/RL management had more than a year to try to establish various partnerships or make other arrangements, which could have still allowed Liberty to broadcast on medium wave in Moscow, it did not raise a finger to save the station, but let Radio Liberty go the way of all the other foreign stations in Russia. Voice of America (Russian Service) stopped broadcasting there in July 2008, a few weeks before the Russian invasion of Georgia,(after numerous protests, a 30 min. VOA Russian broadcast later resumed Monday through Friday only), while the BBC Russian Service followed suit in March 2011 – its coverage of the anti-Putin protests and the clampdown that followed has therefore been available only to those with access to the Internet.
Far from trying to resist the attack of the Russian government on the RFE/RL Russian Service, its management, headed by President Steven Korn, effectively helped Putin with its destruction. On 20th- 21st September 2012, 37 journalists were fired from its Moscow office. These included not only well-known and trusted radio presenters but also those, who, over the past three years, had worked to achieve a sharp increase in the popularity of Radio Liberty’s website. A few young and talented journalists left in protest against the dismissals. Altogether the Moscow office lost up to 80% of its staff. A new director with a new team was invited to start work in October 2012. Within two months, Masha Gessen’s directorship lost Radio Liberty more than half its online audience. One reason for the rapid disaffection, as stated by many former users in their comments, was the station’s decision to get rid of news coverage on its website.
For a country ranked 172 by Freedom House in its 2012 “Global Press Freedom” report and assessed “Not Free’, together with the likes of Azerbaijan and Zimbabwe, the loss of every source of independent information is a disaster. Furthermore, all this happened at a time when Russia was rapidly getting back to its familiar totalitarian ways. New laws expanded the notions of “defamation” and “state treason” so that they could easily be used against dissenters. New restrictions on the Internet came into force. Activists faced trumped-up charges of extremism, pre-arranged court sentences and torture behind bars. In this context the sudden change of direction on the part of Radio Liberty was seen as a betrayal by Russians, who do not want to live in a totalitarian country yet again.
The Radio Liberty ‘reforms’ led to protest rallies in front of the American Embassy in Moscow. Russia’s most eminent and highly respected human rights activists, some formerly imprisoned and exiled as dissidents in the Soviet years, sent letters to the US State Department, asking it to intervene. There has been no reply, although the Secretary of State is an ex officio member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which supervises RFE/RL as part of US-government-funded international broadcasting, and Hillary Clinton could not have remained ignorant of the row.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was the only foreign radio station that had refused to broadcast in Moscow in connection with the entry into force in November 2012 of the amendment to the Russian law on mass media, which restricted foreign ownership of broadcast licenses but did not ban foreign broadcasts in the Russian Federation. As the former RFE/RL management team and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) gave up on medium wave (AM) broadcasting in Moscow without a fight, managements of other foreign radio stations found a way to continue to broadcast legally without any difficulty.
In Moscow, the frequency of 738 kHz (AM), leased by World Radio Network (WRN) 24 hours a day, is used legally by the following radio stations:
-International Radio Spain;
-China Radio International;
-International Radio Korea;
-International Radio Slovakia;
-International Radio Taiwan;
-United Nations Radio;
-Russian Radio Australia.
In addition, Voice of America (VOA) Russian and English programs are being legally broadcast in Moscow on the 810 kHz AM frequency from 7:00 until 23.00. The license for this frequency is owned by Russian state broadcaster Voice of Russia.
This information was provided by former Radio Liberty Moscow technical director Ilia Tochkin.[/aside]
Is this surprising? Yes, if you think what a huge reputational damage the USA has suffered among the old audience of Radio Liberty — that is, precisely among people who have always respected it and are now convinced that President Obama is acting in cahoots with President Putin. Yes, if you remember that American taxpayers’ money will still be spent on the RFE/RL Russian Service, although its raison d’être, its main purpose – to provide information not available locally – seems to have been abandoned. No, if you recall that Obama’s administration, with its notorious ‘reset’, chose to forget the territories annexed from Georgia in 2008 and resisted for as long as it could the Magnitsky Act to punish those responsible for the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in November 2009, and other corrupt Russian officials.
But this is not just about Obama, who clearly wants to avoid a quarrel with Putin’s Russia. Unfortunately, a process akin to the former Soviet “jamming” of Western radio stations started much earlier –only this time from the Western side. The BBC, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Radio France International, Radio Luxemburg, Radio Vatican, Radio Canada International – all stations that used to broadcast to the Soviet Union have been incapacitated in one way or another since its collapse. The process displayed uncanny similarities in different countries, especially in the USA and Great Britain.
The Lost Mission
Radio stations have proved ultimately to be a major casualty of Western ‘victory’ in the Cold War and the change in Western attitudes towards Russia. As far as the Soviet regime was concerned, everything had been clear. Fully aware of the dangers posed by the USSR, Western governments were ready to spend money to pierce the Iron Curtain, letting people living behind it have the information they so badly lacked – about both the Soviet Union and the outside world. The news of the regime’s collapse was met in the West with genuine euphoria and a naïve belief that Russia had changed overnight, becoming a free and democratic country.
The euphoria had two consequences for the foreign radio stations. Excited foreign broadcasters started establishing offices in Russia, hiring correspondents, reaching agreement with local re-broadcasters, and acquiring radio frequencies – all quite impossible before. At the same time, they abandoned the vetting procedures of the past, which were designed to prevent the recruitment of anyone with KGB connections. This in itself was a sign that they were not at all clear what their task, at least for the near future, was going to be. ‘Professional journalists with excellent English’ seemed the most attractive Russian recruits for foreign stations’ management, although in the early 1990’s they could only come from the Soviet propaganda machine, by definition linked with the KGB.
Having worked for the BBC Russian Service as a producer and then an editor between 1991 and 2009, I vividly remember the embarrassment of one of my British bosses when, in about 1992 or 1993, I suggested that a new Russian Service presenter sounded exactly like a Komsomol (Young Communist League) leader. ‘But, Masha, this is a witch-hunt!’ my boss exclaimed indignantly. ‘We live in a post-communist world!’ Several years were to pass before these newly recruited members of staff reached senior positions and started influencing the editorial decisions of the radio stations in directions that would have won the approval of their former ( or maybe even current?) bosses in Russia…
And yet it was an internal rather than an external enemy that destroyed this crucial tool of Western ‘soft power’. This enemy was the total ignorance on the part of Western decision-makers of the role that foreign broadcasting could play in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the traditional goals of Western broadcasting organisations — ‘to promote democratic values’ (Radio Liberty mission statement), ‘to give objective and unbiased coverage of the events and bring to the debate issues and opinions not heard on state-controlled media’ (BBC Russian Service Strategy paper) — were still very much in demand.
They were needed in Russia even in the relative media freedom of the 1990s, because, as soon became obvious, Russia had never achieved a complete break with its Soviet past and the risk of totalitarianism returning in a different guise had not been eliminated. Information about different ways of organising society, different approaches to problems, discussions including people with non-Soviet experience, which could be easily supplied by foreign radio, were vital for the country trying to transform itself. And of course the traditional goals acquired even more importance, as the relative freedom of the Yeltsin years gave way, under Putin, to a re-born system of propaganda and censorship, which steadily took over television and radio, leaving little room for anything else in domestic media,
This was certainly understood by the many journalists working for foreign radio stations who had come out of the country they were broadcasting to and knew their listeners’ needs and interests. It was understood by the foreign experts who closely followed what was happening in Russia. But it was not at all obvious for Western politicians.
In the quarter century since Gorbachev’s perestroika, while Russia was sliding back towards its totalitarian and imperial past, the attitude of Western politicians has fluctuated between indifference, born out of a cynical conviction that ‘Russia is a nuisance, but not a danger’, and appeasement, supported by a belief that it could be a valuable business partner. Those making political decisions happily picked up and repeated a slogan that a subtle Russian propaganda strategy was so eager to instil: ‘there is no longer any ideological divide between Russia and the West’. Therefore, they were reluctant even to think about broadcasting into Russia. This absence of a political position created a void, which was soon filled by people who could not care less.
A Managerial Revolution
By the first years of the new century it became painfully obvious that overseas broadcasting, both in the USA and in Great Britain, was torn by a clash between journalists and experts on Russia on the one hand, and managers, who came to oversee their work, on the other.
In the US, both Radio Liberty and Voice of America, two radio stations broadcasting in Russian, had since 1999 been governed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors , whose aim was to supervise all non-military international broadcasting sponsored by the US government. The appearance of an extra layer of top managers reduced the authority of language services directors – their expertise on the countries they were broadcasting to was no longer deemed necessary. On the contrary, the eight rotating BBG members, some of whom had been quite recently criticised for their ignorance about ‘media and foreign policy’, became responsible for supervising broadcasting in 65 languages, prescribing strategy and appointing the presidents of radio stations.
Naturally, making decisions about broadcasting in foreign languages to foreign countries is not an easy task, so the BBG was prone to mistakes — and not only in Russia, but also in the rest of the world. In 2003, as a BBC journalist I researched the case of the popular Radio Azari (‘Liberty), which used to bring much-needed news and analysis to an Iranian audience. This radio was closed and replaced with Radio Farda (‘Tomorrow’), a station supposed to broadcast mainly music, punctuated with short news bulletins. According to the BBG concept, Radio Farda was to be modelled on Radio Sawa, a station enjoying a great success in Jordan. The difference between Iran and Jordan was not really taken into account, although the countries, of course, have little in common whether it concerns their respective political situation, broadcasting needs, or even the availability of Western music. The deep disappointment of Iranian listeners forced the American managers to backtrack on their decision. Eventually Radio Farda was allowed to deal with news and current affairs at greater depth, which it carries on doing today.
This, however, concerned Iran, a country that has been the constant focus of the world’s attention, and not Russia, which was no longer of interest to the West. When in 2004 the Radio Liberty Russian Service management started ‘restructuring’ its Russian programming, this went unnoticed by anyone, apart from journalists within the service, who tried to make their views known. As a result, the Russian Service Director Mario Corti, under whose directorship Radio Liberty had achieved an unheard of audience reach – about six per cent of the population! — was removed from his position and later sacked together with some of the best and most respected Radio Liberty journalists: Tengiz Gudava, Sergei Yurienen and Lev Roitman. No protests could change the situation, not even from Andrey Saharov’s redoubtable widow Yelena Bonner (1923 -2011), a formidable activist in her own right. Needless to say, that level of audience reach has never since been equalled.
Although the situation in Britain seemed completely different, it led to very similar results as far as overseas broadcasting was concerned. As a consequence of the UK government’s criticism of the BBC in 2003 at the beginning of the Iraq War, a new ‘corporate culture’ was introduced at the Broadcasting Corporation with a stricter adherence to hierarchical principles, culminating in the practice of constant ‘referring up’. In the World Service context this led to a total disregard for the opinions of the experts on a particular region, to say nothing of the views of the staff. As a result, managers with little or no programme experience and sometimes even lacking sufficient knowledge of the target language effectively replaced editors in taking editorial decisions.
It is only now, after the Jimmy Savile row, that the BBC as a whole has had to admit that it was the management’s distrust of programme-makers that caused one of the worst disasters in the corporation’s history. There was no such awareness in 2003, and especially not when it concerned foreign-born journalists. From now on it was the managers who guided the development of the stations. They were sure they knew best.
In the first decade of the new millennium, when Putin’s regime was growing stronger by the day and it was already clear that the demand for alternative information could not be satisfied within Russia, foreign broadcasters seemed to be doing everything they could to alienate their audiences.
One of the primary goals both British and American broadcast managers then pursued was to make their stations as similar in style to the Russian domestic media as possible. Only Radio Liberty decided to follow the example of Moscow-based radio station Echo Moskvy and develop talk shows, while the BBC, obviously forgetting its status as an international broadcaster, did its best to emulate provincial stations. The rationale, at least in the case of the BBC, was an attempt to entice Russian local radios into rebroadcasting agreements. Being rebroadcast by domestic media presumably seemed the easiest way to get more listeners. No thought was given to the vulnerability of this approach, which made foreign stations dependent on the whim of the Russian authorities. And although the BBC was happy to adapt not only the style, but also the content, of its current affairs programmes and even share the airwaves with Russian propaganda channels, its rebroadcasting abruptly stopped when British-Russian relations deteriorated after the murder of Putin’s critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006.
It was different with Radio Liberty, whose content throughout the 2000s still presented an alternative to the official Russian channels. However, as the first victim of Putin’s drive to control the media was a Radio Liberty journalist, Andrey Babitsky, who used to cover the Chechen war, the Radio Liberty’s Russian re-broadcasters felt it would be safer to avoid potential problems and began cancelling the partnerships, which had been successfully working during the 1990s.
Yet another similarity was the management’s wish to target listeners in the capital cities, rather than in the rest of the country. This was yet another step towards losing the audience. Unlike inhabitants of the over-saturated media environment of Moscow and Petersburg, people living in smaller towns and villages across the vast expanses of Russia had much less access to information or entertainment and they still turned to foreign stations – a sort of a window on a different life. In 2003, the BBC Russian Service halved the number of hours it broadcast on short wave, thus losing a significant number of provincial listeners, while its medium wave broadcasting still remained available in three most populous cities Moscow, Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.
The split between the bigger cities and the rest of the huge country that became obvious during the protests of 2011-2012 can in part be explained by the lack of independent information in provincial Russia. This was the gap that could have been filled by Western broadcasters – if only they had cared to do so.
The attack on radio
‘We decided not to view it as a calamity.’ With these words the former RFE/RL President Steven Korn, summed up his attitude towards the loss of medium wave broadcasting– that is, 105,000 listeners in Moscow. He regarded the latest development, he said, as an opportunity to concentrate on Radio Liberty’s website and hoped to build a ‘state- of- the- art digital office’. Unable, or rather, unwilling, to ensure the radio signal delivery to Russia, both American and British managers had long ago chosen the tactic of juxtaposing the ‘modern’ Internet and ‘old-fashioned’ radio. This was a convenient way to kill several birds with one stone: to proclaim that they were targeting younger audiences (although it’s hard to understand why an audience of 40-60 year-olds is necessarily worse than a younger one); to get rid of journalists who did not fit their description of “multimedia producers’; to evade responsibility for wrecking established radio stations and abandoning their audiences; and, most importantly, to shift the argument about overseas broadcasting from the content to the means by which this content was to be delivered.
When the head of oil company Yukos Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested for political reasons in 2003, the BBC Russian Service received a letter from one of its listeners: ‘When I heard the news’, he wrote,’ I bought myself a short-wave radio.’ This was the man’s spontaneous reaction to the obvious threat to democracy in Russia. He expected the West to support the values that, yet again, were in short supply in his country and he did not mind how the information and analysis he needed was to reach him. He was ready to make a special effort to receive it, as long as the West reacted as he had expected. It did not. The news of Khodorkovsky’s arrest did create some ripples, but these were quickly calmed by those Western businessmen and politicians for whom Russia’s potential as an attractive place for making money was far more significant than the country’s relapse into its anti-democratic ways.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that alternative ways of delivering the radio signal were not even seriously explored. If the BBC or RFE/RL had really wanted to reach audiences in Russia as badly as they had in Soviet times, when they managed to adapt their broadcasting to the inconvenience of Soviet “jamming”, they would have considered the possibility of broadcasting from the Baltic States or using digital short waves (DRM or DAB), or any other wonders of modern technology. As it is, today they target only those, who already receive their information online and have access to all the riches of the internet, leaving the remaining two-thirds of the country exposed exclusively to state-controlled TV propaganda.
This betrayal of values on the part of the West seems even more glaring against the background of the Russian foreign broadcasting success story. The Voice of Russia, the official international radio sponsored by the Russian government, which started in 1929 as Radio Komintern, now broadcasts in 32 languages, for a total of 179 hours a day, in the FM band, on medium and short waves, via satellite and through the global mobile communications network. It also has a website and broadcasts via the Internet. Its UK radio edition is prepared in London, where its office was opened in 2011, and it uses the Digital Audio Broadcasting frequency. Its US version has been produced in Washington since May 2011 and broadcasts six hours a day as part of a 24-hour programme schedule of broadcasting from Moscow that is aimed at US audiences.
Obviously, Russia still takes its international broadcasting extremely seriously. This certainly cannot be said of Britain. When in 2009 the BBC Russian Service closed the most popular and the most original part of its output, Russian Features, cutting 18 hours of broadcast weekly, this was met by an enormous protest campaign in the UK, but to no effect. Coming shortly after the Russian government had almost completely closed down British Council activities in the country this appeared to confirm, once again, that the government in Britain had ceased to regard its overseas broadcasting as an effective tool in international relations. So it was only logical that in 2011 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which always financed the World Service via the so called grant-in-aid, decided to stop doing so and move the World Service from 2014 onto the BBC’s own books. And it was in 2011 that the BBC Russian Service radio fell silent.
As far as the USA is concerned, the review of the Radio Liberty Russian Service ordered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors should report its conclusions and recommendations no later than June 2013. Meanwhile, at the end of January 2013 Hillary Clinton said in her final appearance before Congress as Secretary of State: “We have abdicated the broadcasting area… we are not doing what we did during the Cold War. .Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”. Clinton, however, meant the message needed to confront Jihadists – otherwise, she claimed, their narrative would “fill the void”. The need to oppose Russia’s totalitarian ways by resorting once more to the soft power of broadcasting has yet to be recognized by the US establishment… If by some miracle the sacked Radio Liberty journalists are invited back and the station returns to its mission of providing information to Russia, there will be a glimmer of hope that at least some remnants of Western broadcasting in Russia can be salvaged. If not, it will be clear that this battle has been lost – without even a fight.