BBG Governor Confirms Inadequacy of U.S. BBG Media in Countering Putin Propaganda

OPINION

BBG Governor Confirms Inadequacy of U.S. BBG Media in Countering Putin Propaganda

By Ted Lipien

 
 

Republican member of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Russia expert Dr. Leon Aron, has confirmed the inadequacy of U.S. BBG media outreach in countering Russian government’s propaganda and suggested more Western support for indigenous free Russian-language media is needed. Dr. Aron said that “ultimately the most effective countermeasure to the Russian propaganda is not — is not — just the U.S. airwaves, but the empowering the local Russian-speaking population in the former Soviet countries.”

Rep. Ed Royce HFAC Hearing on Russia 2016-06-14Responding to a question from the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Dr. Aron said on Capitol Hill during a hearing on “U.S. Policy Towards Putin’s Russia” that while the BBG is working with the congressional committee to improve Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) programs, in his view the most effective way of countering Putin propaganda and disinformation is by supporting independent journalists and media outlets in the region through grants distributed by governments and NGOs.

 

 
REP. ED ROYCE: “There has to be a more effective way to move forward to counter this disinformation, get the facts out there, and, item by item, knock this stuff down with, you know, knock this narrative down with the truth about what’s going on. Because, obviously, it is having an impact, in among the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Europe, certainly, but beyond that now. This is being translated in all these other languages, and it’s just a constant big lie propaganda effort, that has to be countered.
 
Dr. Aron, any response on that?”
 
DR. LEON ARON: “Well, Mr. Chairman, I have to put on my BGG governor hat. We have a good relationship with your committee. We’re working together to make U.S. international broadcasting more effective.
 
Let me tell you though that my own experience is that ultimately the most effective countermeasure to the Russian propaganda is not –is not — just the U.S. air waves, but the empowering the local Russian-speaking population in the former Soviet countries. I’m sorry, former Soviet Union.”
 
REP. ED ROYCE: “Reporters and stringers.”
 
DR. LEON ARON: “Reporters, stringers, through a non-government and government grants. One of the examples that I believe I gave are testifying on the issue of the Russian propaganda in the Senate was StopFake, which is a very effective site in Kiev run by the students of the Department of Journalism. This is ultimately the only way to counter the Russian propaganda, because it gives the people of those countries and, of course, this could be spread. Similar efforts are occurring in the Baltics and in the Central Asia.”

 

 

Testifying at the same hearing, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul made the point that the United States government has not and should not fund Russian independent media, since that tars it with the foreign agent brush, but the U.S. can support it indirectly with exchanges, internships, etc. His argument is valid. Such concerns highlight the need for a renewed effort to reform RFE/RL, but the idea of providing all possible legitimate assistance to indigenous free media in Russia deserves careful but serious consideration.

While 1. the question of grants to free Russian media and independent journalists was not discussed at length during the hearing; 2. Dr. Aron is only one member of the nine-person BBG board (there are currently eight), and 3. he has not said directly that the agency should give grants to independent journalists and media outlets in the region, the United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994, as amended in 1998, already gives the BBG the authority to issue such grants.

The Act says, “If the Board determines at any time that RFE/RL, Incorporated, is not carrying out the functions described in section 309 in an effective and economical manner, the Board may award the grant to carry out such functions to another entity after soliciting and considering applications from eligible entities in such manner and accompanied by such information as the Board may reasonably require.”

This language in the United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994, as amended in 1998, applies specifically to RFE/RL, but Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, recently has introduced an amendment to the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that, if passed in its current form and signed by the President, would de-federalize the Voice of America. What will happen to the Thornberry Amendment and what could result from it if it ever becomes law remains to be seen, but even now the BBG has sufficient authority to manage U.S. international media outlets and some flexibility in giving out grants according to what is in America’s best interests.

This particular Amendment as currently written is not, in fact, in America’s best interests. BBG CEO John Lansing assured VOA staff that “the House amendment as written would NOT require that VOA be de-federalized or abolished, or require the loss of any jobs or positions.” This probably means that he would not use the authority to de-federalize VOA if the Amendment becomes law in its current form. In my view, the Amendment would further damage U.S. international media outreach. By all indications, the agency is already doing a very poor job, as freely admitted even by one of its board members, but the Congress does not need to marginalize Voice of America journalists and further undermine their mission just to punish the inept management. The U.S. Senate voted on Tuesday, June 16, to pass its version of the Senate National Defense Authorization Act and it appears that no BBG reform amendments were included in the Senate bill. The House-Senate conference committee is where the Senate and House will now iron out differences between their bills.

It’s the BBG, VOA, and RFE/RL management, rather than BBG’s journalists, that bears almost all the blame for the agency’s poor performance. When looking at and comparing BBG media to some of the few still free Russian media outlets, Leonid Ragozin, an independent journalist and Lonely Planet author, came to a conclusion similar to Dr. Aron’s about the superiority of the indigenous free Russian media model. In a January 2015 openDemocracy Russia article, “Speaking to the Russophones,” Ragozin concluded that despite receiving far less funding, free Russian media outlets are performing much better than Radio Liberty, Voice of America, or even BBC.

 

 
LEONID RAGOZIN:
 
“BBC Russian Service, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America all have video operations that could be potentially expanded into fully-fledged channels, but they suffer from a deep existential crisis. Who are they talking to and why? What is their mission (apart from satisfying the ego of their Western managers or government officials who prefer to ignore how little impact these outlets have on their target audiences, despite generous funding)?
 
On the contrary, garage-style projects launched and run by Russians without any foreign assistance, instantly capture vast audiences in Russia and beyond. Despite (or actually thanks to) the immense pressure from the authorities, the now iconic Russian independent channel Dozhd [Rain TV] is now surviving entirely by selling subscription to its online broadcast, which perhaps provides the healthiest commercial model for the Russian media market post-Putin. Dozhd is hugely popular with Russophones in the EU, and already provides a viable alternative to Putin’s TV – without any help from the Eurocrats.”

 

 

Dr. Aron is absolutely right on the point of effectiveness of truly surrogate free Russian-language media, whatever is left of it inside the country and abroad. He alluded only briefly to BBG’s asserted cooperation with the House Foreign Affairs Committee on reforming RFE/RL and VOA outreach in Russian. In fact, both BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and BBG CEO John Lansing are on the record officially opposing key bipartisan reforms proposed by Chairman Ed Royce and the committee’s Ranking Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). These two BBG officials both insisted that current reforms undertaken by John Lansing are sufficient and all that is now required is providing the single BBG CEO with more authority. My sources on Capitol Hill tell me that Chairman Royce and many of the other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are profoundly disappointed with the agency’s leadership and their opposition to the bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill.

The BBG has badly mismanaged its media outreach over the years despite spending billions of dollars, mostly to benefit its own bureaucracy. Independent research shows that some of the still free Russian media outlets, such as MEDUZA or Rain TV, are doing far better online and through social media that either VOA or RFE/RL, and, judging by web traffic, have far more credibility with the audience than the U.S.-funded broadcasters, an observation similar to the one made earlier by Leonid Ragozin.

According to Alexa Internet, Inc. a California-based Amazon company that provides commercial web traffic data and analytics, BBG media sites are far behind MEDUZA and Rain TV in web traffic in Russia.
 

Best Ranking Globally or in Russia is 1.

 

Meduza.io Alexa Rank in Russia 134

Meduza.io Alexa Rank 134 in Russia 2016-06-16

TVRain.ru Alexa Rank in Russia 191

TVRain.ru Alexa Rank 191 in Russia 2016-06-16

Svoboda.org (RFE/RL Russian Service) Alexa Rank in Russia 362

Svoboda.org Alexa Rank 362 in Russia 2016-06-16

CurrentTime.tv (RFE/RL and VOA Russian Language TV) Alexa Rank in Russia 2,445

CurrentTime.tv Alexa Rank 2445 in Russia 2016-06-16

Golos-Ameriki.ru (VOA Russian Service) Alexa Rank in Russia 3,568

Golos-Ameriki.ru Alexa Rank 3568 in Russia 2016-06-16
 
BBC Russian Service’s rank in Russia could not be measured in Alexa because it shows a result for all BBC programs. BBC’s overall Alexa ranking in Russia is 100 and BBC’s global ranking is 128. (1 is best.) VOA English site’s global Alexa ranking is 4,854. BBC Russian Service has nearly three times as many Facebook “Likes” as VOA Russian Service Facebook page.

BBG and RFE/RL executives know that the agency has a minuscule audience and very little impact in Russia. They like to obscure this fact by touting misleading and largely meaningless statistics, such as the annual number of web visitors. What really counts is a weekly reach and impact. Gallup, which is under contract to the BBG to provide audience research, reported that some of the BBG programs may actually have a negative impact in Russia.

Longtime BBG executive Jeff Trimble listening to a Gallup presentation that support for Crimea being forcefully annexed by Russia is higher among adults who use both Russian and Western media, suggesting that BBG programs may still have a negative impact for the United States. February 2016.

Longtime BBG executive Jeff Trimble listening to a Gallup presentation that support for Crimea being forcefully annexed by Russia is higher among adults who use both Russian and Western media, suggesting that BBG programs may have a negative impact for the United States. February 2016.

I have been saying this for years. The BBG bureaucracy’s push to merge all of its media outlets under one BBG administrative umbrella and one CEO has been a major strategic mistake because it deprived surrogate media outlets such as RFE/RL of the independence and flexibility needed to be perceived in the region as a free and dynamic local player, which it had been earlier.

Unfortunately, new BBG CEO John Lansing seems to have accepted the bureaucracy’s public relations advice and keeps touting recent programming cooperation on the Russian language television program “Current Time” between VOA and RFE/RL as an achievement, when in fact the mixing of brands is harmful to the different missions of both organizations, especially RFE/RL’s surrogate mission.

Many Russia experts who have seen the RFE/RL-VOA program described it as mediocre. European Russia expert and journalist, Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, compared BBG’s “Current Time” to programs offered by Meduza and Rain TV. He concluded that the U.S. “Congress must understand that reforming RFE/RL’s Russian Service simply cannot be delayed any longer.” His article was re-posted on the House Foreign Affairs Committee website. “In its present shape, the “Current Time” program has a long way to go to win the audience. The way it looks now, it has no chance to compete with either the poorly-financed independent TV RAIN or the super-rich pro-Kremlin national TV channels, Dzieciolowski observed.

 

 
ZYGMUNT DZIECIOLOWSKI:
 
“News from ‘Current Time’ [an RFE/RL and VOA Russian-language TV program] or TV RAIN [an independent Russian channel]? I would always choose TV RAIN, even though they would not attempt to give such wide panorama of events as ‘Current Time.’ But it is about the way TV RAIN is talking to the viewers: they are the channel’s partners, their language and values are the same. Watching TV RAIN you have the feeling they would show you wise men from whom you have a chance to learn something. ‘Current Time’ instead is a cocktail of news presented as fast food served with plastic fork and spoon, instead of a gourmet meal and real silverware. And they don’t even have a Big Mac on the menu, just tasteless no name burgers fried by inexperienced cooks.”

 

 

This merging of RFE/RL and VOA brands in “Current Time” and in other programs works only to the benefit of the agency’s bloated administration in Washington. It has made RFE/RL largely ineffective in Russia and among Russian speakers in the larger region.

In 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then ex officio BBG member, told Congress that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is “practically defunct” and incapable of waging and winning the information war. She was right then, and her observation is still valid now.

Chairman Royce is also absolutely right on the point of the agency being broken and “losing the info war to ISIS & Putin” when he made that point earlier this year after BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and BBG CEO John Lansing came out in opposition to key reforms in the bipartisan Royce-Engel H.R. 2323 bill, which was unanimously approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. An earlier version of the bill was passed by the House of Representatives but was not picked up by the Senate.

Speaking on June 14, 2016, Rep. Royce said:

 

 
REP. ED ROYCE:
 
“And one way to address this, to get back to a theme that I’ve that I’ve pushed for a number of years here with my colleague Eliot Engel, is the legislation that Elliot and I have advanced to try to get back to a program as we once had with Radio Free Europe, which we should be doing with social media, with television.
 
We should be broadcasting into Russia, telling Russians what is actually going on in their society, explaining the Russians what’s happening around the world, explaining the issue of tolerance, of political pluralism, of these perceptions that the rest of the world have, and the truth. If Russia is going, if Putin is going to continue to put out disinformation and misinformation and lie about the West, at the very least we could be telling the truth about what’s happening inside Russia to Russians, so that the people had a better understanding of this situation.

 

 

RFERL Twitter Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 12.38.42 AMAlready in the early years of the Internet era, RFE/RL used to be just as effective in Russia as Meduza and Rain TV are now when it still functioned as a largely independent surrogate Russian broadcaster funded by U.S. taxpayers under the direction of such outstanding journalists as Yuri Handler, Mario Corti, and many of their predecessors. But later into the BBG’s governance, Washington-appointed administrators fired or pushed out some of the most talented and independent-minded RL Russian managers and journalists. They were hoping that RFE/RL would be more successful in Russia if it functioned more like the American National Public Radio (NPR). This experiment destroyed Radio Liberty’s independence and brand reputation in Russia and introduced the dysfunction of the Washington bureaucracy into a previously relatively well-managed non-federal, grantee organization.

Perhaps inadvertently and acting against its own interests, RFE/RL confirmed with a recent tweet how ineffective Western media, and RFE/RL among them, are in reaching the Russians. The reported weekly reach is only 3%, and that includes in addition to VOA and RFE/RL, BBC, Deutsche Welle and other Western media outlets in Russian, English and perhaps in other languages. If only 3% of Russians use Western media weekly, 97% do not. (87% never use Western media in one year.) However, it is important to note that these reach numbers, as reported by RFE/RL on the basis of the Levada Center research, do not include independent Russian media outlets, which have a higher reach. Dr. Aron at the congressional hearing and Leonid Ragozin and Zygmunt Dzieciolowski in their earlier articles have noted Meduza’s and Rain TV’s much better performance in Russia.

RFE/RL and VOA can regain some of their previous effectiveness if they separate administratively and both re-embrace their former missions. Ultimately, however, in the era of the Internet and under the realities which are different than during the Cold War, Dr. Aron’s advice is correct. Supporting indigenous free media can be more effective as a significant additional effort by the U.S. government while the BBG is being reformed through legislation. The outcome of this reform, if there is any, is far from certain. This week Dr. Aron was visiting RFE/RL headquarters in Prague with new RFE/RL president-designate, distinguished AP journalist Tom Kent, who said that as a child he gave money to support the work of the American Cold War radios, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. He has a hard task ahead of him to make RFE/RL effective and to make it again independent and a true surrogate media outlet.

As to Dr. Aron’s key suggestion about media grants, the U.S. has to make sure that it knows whom it is supporting in Russia. It is safe to assume that ex-KGB spy Vladimir Putin will try to infiltrate and undermine any independent Russian media outlet that threatens his power, including Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. Much more expertise and caution on the part of the U.S. government than what the BBG is currently capable of are essential. This means far stricter hiring standards and more thorough security clearances. The BBG needs a new cadre of experts in journalism, public diplomacy, and foreign policy as well as a proper institutional setup within the U.S. government and under 501(c)3 grantee arrangements to attract knowledgable, competent and dedicated staff. Re-establishing of the old United States Information Agency (USIA) would be an ideal solution.

Also important to keep in mind is that independent Russian media outlets would not be able to do the work of the Voice of America in presenting and explaining the American society and U.S. policies to the Russian speakers, as required by the VOA Charter. De-federalizing and privatizing the Voice of America, as proposed in the Thornberry Amendment, would in effect destroy this unique VOA mission. This cannot be allowed to happen. But not reforming the agency, which already gets close to a billion dollars annually ($777 million in FY 2017 Budget Request) and wastes most of it without achieving any significant impact, would be a major failure of congressional oversight and a threat to U.S. security.

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Disclosure: Ted Lipien is a co-founder and supporter of BBG Watch.

Ted LipienTed Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was in charge of VOA programs to Poland during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy. He is the author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church,” O-Books, London, 2008.

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BACKGROUND MATERIAL AND REFERENCES FOR FURTHER RESEARCH

 
 

Chairman Royce Opening Statement at Hearing on U.S. Policy Toward Putin’s Russia

 
June 14, 2016
 

 
REP. ED ROYCE: Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but I think for many of us less well known as what he said next. Because he commented about unlocking that riddle. He said: but perhaps there’s a key, and that key is russian national interest. The problem is that we’re not dealing with the interests of the Russian people. We could be if we were broadcasting into Russia the way we did during the Reagan administration, when we had that message about political pluralism and tolerance, in that message of educating people effectively and what was going on inside Russia and around the world, but we don’t.

So, instead, we’re dealing with the interests of Vladimir Putin, because he’s in a position there where he is calling the shots. And he has not demonstrated much interest in cooperating with the United States. In fact many of these policies are directly undermining America, from selling advanced weapons to Iran to destabilizing our allies by sending waves of Syrian refugees, over several million now, across their borders. And for the first time since the end of the Cold War we have seen a situation where we’ve been forced to increase our military presence in Europe to make clear our readiness to defend NATO.

Yet in this environment, Putin continues to escalate, and that’s why we’ve got this hearing today on our U.S. policy toward Putin’s Russia. And over the past year, he has repeatedly sent Russian warplanes to buzz our ships and planes in international waters. These are reckless acts, these are provocative acts, and a miscalculation could easily result in direct confrontation.

As this committee has examined Russia’s propaganda machine, and for any of you who have watched RT television, you can see how it has a constant stream of of disinformation that it puts out about the United States, about the UK, about what actually happens in the world. But that machinery under Putin is in overdrive. It is undermining governments, including NATO allies. And meanwhile, back in Russia, independent media and dissidents are forcefully sidelined. And for the media, when I say forcibly, I mean imprisoned or sometimes shot.

A big part of the problem is that the administration has repeatedly rushed to try to cooperate with Russia, beginning with a string of one-sided concessions in the new START arms control agreement. I would just point out, when we pulled out the Interceptor system in Poland and the Czech Republic, I think that was a blunder.

We were quick to join diplomatic efforts in Syria, even as the opposition forces we support have come under repeated Russian aerial attack. And this has convinced the Russians that once again the administration will concede a great deal for very little in concern in return, for the concession. That does not mean that we should rule out cooperation with Russia. We should cooperate with Russia, but cooperation means benefits for both sides. A tougher and more consistent approach on our part might convince Putin that cooperation is more advantageous than the reflexive confrontation that he often resorts to.

We have clearly demonstrated that we are open to cooperation. It is Putin who is not. And if he continues playing a zero-sum game and regards the U.S. as an enemy to achieving his ends then the possibility of compromise are zero under that circumstance.

Much of his behaviour to date fits that description. Most glaringly seen by his invasion of Ukraine and what happened in Georgia. Unfortunately, Putin has repeatedly calculated, rightfully so, that the administration’s response to his aggression will be lackluster. The U.S. in cooperation with EU and others has imposed sanctions, which have resulted in significant pressure on the Russian economy, but the administration has refused to provide Ukraine, for example, with the anti-tank weaponry needed to stop Russian tanks, which can only be interpreted in Moscow as weakness.

The tragedy is that there are many problems when both countries could benefit from cooperation. One of the most obvious is combating Islamist terrorism. One witness today has intensely studied its rapid spread in Russia and in Central Asia, which together provide the largest number of recruits for ISIS outside of the Arab countries. Putin says he is genuinely concerned about the rising threat, in fact that was his stated goal in intervening in Syria, but as we know his real agenda was to save the Assad regime, which has meant targeting the opposition forces that are supported by the by the U.S. far more than any targeting of ISIS forces. It’s clear that us strategies to deal with Russia have failed. If we want to accomplish a different result, we must negotiate from a position of strength. Only then will cooperation be possible with a man who has demonstrated that the hope of cooperation cannot survive the cold calculation of his narrow interests.

And one way to address this, to get back to a theme that I’ve that I’ve pushed for a number of years here with my colleague Eliot Engel, is the legislation that Elliot and I have advanced to try to get back to a program as we once had with Radio Free Europe, which we should be doing with social media, with television.

We should be broadcasting into Russia, telling Russians what is actually going on in their society, explaining the Russians what’s happening around the world, explaining the issue of tolerance, of political pluralism, of these perceptions that the rest of the world have, and the truth. If Russia is going, if Putin is going to continue to put out disinformation and misinformation and lie about the West, at the very least we could be telling the truth about what’s happening inside Russia to Russians, so that the people had a better understanding of this situation.
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Chairman Royce Questions Witness, BBG Governor Dr. Leon Aron at Hearing on U.S. Policy Toward Putin’s Russia

 

 

REP. ED ROYCE: I was going to ask you about your perceptions on Central Asia, and where we could cooperate here. And I think your point about recruitment. There are literally thousands of recruits coming out of Russia into ISIS right now. But on top of that, there’s the wider problem of this radicalization, and the pace of it.

It seems to me that there is this room for cooperation, but at the same time, there are questions about what Putin would seek from us, what could he offer?

There’s also the question in terms of associating ourselves with Putin’s efforts, counterterrorism efforts, because I’m not sure what form they would take, given the way in which we try to conduct our counterterrorism operations with a great deal of, shall we say, care.

And, certainly, what’s obviously most vexing to me, is watching Syria. Instead of hitting ISIS, he hit the Free Syrian Army. And instead of hitting the army, he hit the markets. His bombers hit, you know, the hospitals, hit the schools. This aspect of this is what is so troublesome for us in the West, because it seems counter productive in terms of the effort of actually going after Islamist terrorism.

So walk us through how, Dr. Aaron, we could engage on that front.

DR. LEON ARON: Well on Syria, I mentioned. Yes all those things you mentioned could be summarized under the heading of different, divergent goals. The goal of Putin in Syria is A: to save the Assad regime. You know, and we could discuss why he wants it. B: to present the West with the total repugnant choice between Assad and ISIS. And C: have Russia as the dominant outside player in the Middle East. Clearly, neither of those is our goal.

In Central Asia, on the other hand, I think the goals do coincide.

Let me remind you, Mr. Chairman, last week there was not just a terrorist act, there was street fighting in the city of Aktobe, in Kazakhstan, between government troops and terrorists. That’s 400 kilometers from Russia’s borders. That is, you know, that’s less than 250 miles.

Churchill was mentioned here, I think, by Jack Matlock. Central Asia is a soft underbelly of Russia. This is an enormous area. You know that there are six million guest workers, many of them illegal, in Russia, coming in and out from Central Asia. Russia is the major recruitment center for ISIS — an estimated 300 to 500 recruiters. Most of Central Asians have been recruited not in Kazakhstan, or Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan. They were recruited on construction sites in Moscow to join ISIS.

There are all kinds of statistics. For example, Russian speakers from Russia and the former Soviet Union, primarily Central Asia, are the second largest language group in ISIS after Arabic speakers. We cannot help Putin inside the country, and we could discuss why he has this problem inside the country, radicalization of of its own Muslims and the guest workers. But in Central Asia, I believe, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and certain extent Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are very troubled states. If they fall, as I said, the danger to us is that they will become havens for terrorists.

REP. ED ROYCE: Let me just add a point because Mr. Engel and I have traveled in in Central Asia and we’ve had many meetings and many explanations from local government officials about how Gulf state money floods into that region and acquires either radio stations, television stations, newspapers. Increasingly, how also imams come from another part of the world and change the indigenous Muslim faith or ideology to a new ideology. As they would say to us: these are not our customs, these are customers that are being imported here, but they’re changing our culture. And it looks like what we see happening across Central Asia is also happening across southern Russia. And that then leads to this problem. And I would argue this is going to be the next big problem because of the rate at which this is happening.

The last point I wanted to ask you, I’m almost out of time, is just some of the stuff that we hear on RT television or on Russian propaganda. [that] the Zika virus was created by the United States. You know, you have a 450 million dollar budget, spreading this kind of nonsense across Latin America, Central Asia, Europe, around the world, here, a lot of disinformation, 24 hours a day.

There has to be a more effective way to move forward to counter this disinformation, get the facts out there, and, item by item, knock this stuff down with, you know, knock this narrative down with the truth about what’s going on. Because, obviously, it is having an impact, in among the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Europe, certainly, but beyond that now. This is being translated in all these other languages, and it’s just a constant big lie propaganda effort, that has to be countered.

Dr. Aron, any response on that?

DR. LEON ARON: Well, Mr. Chairman, I have to put on my BGG governor hat. We have a good relationship with your committee. We’re working together to make U.S. international broadcasting more effective.

Let me tell you though that my own experience is that ultimately the most effective countermeasure to the Russian propaganda is not –is not — just the U.S. air waves, but the empowering the local Russian-speaking population in the former Soviet countries. I’m sorry, former Soviet Union.

REP. ED ROYCE: Reporters and stringers.

DR. LEON ARON: Reporters, stringers, through a non-government and government grants. One of the examples that I believe I gave are testifying on the issue of the Russian propaganda in the Senate was StopFake, which is a very effective site in Kiev run by the students of the Department of Journalism. This is ultimately the only way to counter the Russian propaganda, because it gives the people of those countries and, of course, this could be spread. Similar efforts are occurring in the Baltics and in the Central Asia.

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Below is Chairman Royce’s opening statement (as prepared for delivery) at the hearing:

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” But less well known is what he said next: “but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

The problem is that we’re not dealing with the interests of the Russian people, but instead with the interests of Vladimir Putin. And he has not demonstrated much interest in cooperating with the United States. In fact, many of his policies are directly undermining America – from selling advanced weapons to Iran to destabilizing our allies by driving waves of Syrian refugees across their borders. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, we have been forced to increase our military presence in Europe to make clear our readiness to defend NATO countries.

Yet Putin continues to escalate. Over the past year he has repeatedly sent Russian warplanes to buzz U.S. ships and planes in international waters. These are reckless and provocative acts. A miscalculation could easily result in direct confrontation.

As this Committee has examined, Russia’s propaganda machine – what one described as the “weaponization of information” – is in overdrive, undermining governments including NATO allies. Meanwhile, back in Russia, independent media and dissidents are forcefully sidelined.

A big part of the problem is that the Administration has repeatedly rushed to try to cooperate with Russia, beginning with a string of one-sided concessions in the New START arms control agreement. We were quick to join diplomatic efforts in Syria even as the opposition forces we support have come under repeated Russia attack. This has convinced the Russians that, once again, the Administration will concede a great deal, for little return.

That does not mean we should rule out cooperation with Russia. But cooperation means benefits for both sides. A tougher and more consistent approach on our part might convince Putin that cooperation is more advantageous than the reflexive confrontation he often resorts to.

We have clearly demonstrated that we are open to cooperation. It is Putin who is not. If he continues playing a zero-sum game and regards the U.S. as an enemy to achieving his ends, then the possibility of compromise is zero. Much of his behavior to date fits that description, most glaringly seen by his invasion of Ukraine and Georgia.

Unfortunately Putin has repeatedly calculated – rightfully so – that the Administration’s response to his aggression will be limited. The U.S., in cooperation with the EU and others, has imposed sanctions which have resulted in significant pressure on the Russian economy. But the Administration has refused to provide Ukraine with the weaponry needed to stop Russian tanks, which can only be interpreted in Moscow as weakness.

The tragedy is that there are many problems where both countries could benefit from cooperation. One of the most obvious is combating Islamist terrorism. One witness today has intensively studied its rapid spread in Russia and Central Asia, which together provide the largest number of recruits for ISIS outside of the Arab countries.

Putin says he is genuinely concerned about this rising threat. In fact, that was his stated goal in intervening in Syria. But as we know, his real agenda was to save the Assad regime, which has meant targeting the opposition forces far more than ISIS.

It’s clear that U.S. strategies to deal with Russia have failed. If we want to accomplish a different result, we must negotiate from a position of strength. Only then will cooperation be possible with a man who has demonstrated that the hope of cooperation cannot survive the cold calculation of his narrow interests.

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Engel Remarks on U.S. Policy Towards Putin’s Russia

 

 

 
 
WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today made the following remarks at a full Committee hearing on United States policy toward Putin’s Russia:

“Thank you Mr. Chairman, and let me say I agree with the statement you just made. Thank you for calling this hearing. You and I have long shared deep concerns about Russia’s aggression under Vladimir Putin, and I’m grateful that you’ve focused the Committee’s attention on this challenge.

“To all of our witnesses: welcome to the Foreign Affairs Committee. We’re grateful for your expertise and insight.

“Ambassador McFaul, let me say how particularly impressed I was with your service as our top diplomat in Moscow. I know you were the target of all sorts of absurd accusations and harassment by Putin’s allies. And I know that you were never afraid to push back against misinformation and stand your ground. And you’re exactly, exactly the kind of diplomat we need to meet 21st-century challenges. So, so thank you for your service. And the other witnesses: thank you as well for your service.

“I’ve come to view Putin’s Russia as a unique challenge on the global stage. When we face crises around the world, we often ask ourselves, ‘What could we have done differently?’ or ‘What are the opportunities to defuse this situation?’ But with Putin, there may not be answers to those questions, because he’s playing by his own set of rules.

“Putin has ignored Russian law, cracking down on the human rights of Russia’s people and literally robbing future generations of their prosperity. He has destroyed Russia’s standing in the world, walking away from the country’s international obligations and shoring up the brutal Assad regime in Syria. And he has threatened the norms that have largely kept the peace in Europe since World War II, trampling on the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors, testing the resolve of NATO, and working to undermine Western unity.

“I want to be careful not to conflate Putin and his corrupt leadership with the Russian people. Russia is a great nation, but Putin is not Russia. He is an unapologetic, authoritarian kleptocrat. A grave threat to his own people and to stability and security across Europe and beyond.

“So how do we craft a policy to deal with such an unpredictable and irresponsible leader? For now, the best approach seems to be one of geographical containment. We cannot fix what’s ailing Russian society. But we can try to keep it within Russia’s recognized borders.

“This may be a great test for NATO’s role in the 21st century. NATO, of course, has no ambition to chip away at Russia’s territory, but I’m confident that the Alliance will keep its Article 5 promise. Putin uses lies and confusion to cast doubt on NATO’s ability. So I’m glad that NATO is ramping up its presence in Eastern Europe, sending a clear signal that the Alliance will not back down in the face of Putin’s aggression. I believe, and I’ve said for a long time, that I think NATO is being tested and if we fail the test, I think it’s the end of the alliance. We cannot fail the test.

“Aside from that, sanctions have given us mixed results. As violence in Eastern Ukraine escalates again, it’s clear that sanctions haven’t done enough to thwart Putin’s ambitions. But sanctions are better than nothing, and in the long term, I believe we have weakened Putin’s ability to project a destabilizing force beyond Russia’s borders.

“But we know Putin isn’t going anywhere. So we’re left to ask, what else should we be doing?

“I recently introduced legislation that, in my view, would take us in the right direction. My bill, the STAND for Ukraine Act, would tighten sanctions on Russia and reject any form of recognition of Russia’s rule over Crimea—in the same way we didn’t recognize Soviet occupation of the Baltic States during the Cold War. It would also help to drive investment in Ukraine and push back against Russian propaganda and disinformation.

“There are other issues I have hope we can touch on today as well. How do we help the Russian people hear a different point of view? And the Chairman spoke about that in his opening statement. After all, Putin’s apparent approval ratings have a lot to do with the fact that there’s simply no alternative. How do we seize on the common ground we share with the citizens of Russia? Even if the United States isn’t popular in Russia, we know that the country’s citizens are disgusted by corruption at every level of government.

“Now let me close by saying that we’re not focusing on Russia today because we want to pick a fight, breathe new life into old animosities, or drag the country down. A failed Russia would spread damaging ripple effects around the world.

“Rather, we hold out hope for the people of Russia. We want to see them realize their democratic aspirations. We want to see their country become a stable and prosperous European power and partner on the world stage. Putin has strangled democracy in Russia. We had such high hopes.

“But, I look forward to hearing our witnesses today and hear what they have to say. And I thank them again for coming. I yield back Mr. Chairman.”
 
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Speaking to the Russophones is ‘sad and dull’ on TV from Europe and America

 
January 21, 2015

BBG Watch

ragozin_picture“The story of European and American news organisations trying to connect with the Russian-speaking audience is sad and dull,” writes Leonid Ragozin, an independent journalist and Lonely Planet author based in Moscow. Rogozin advocates instead “long-term loans to a limited number of privately-owned Russian-language start-ups that will compete with each other, creating a healthier and more vibrant Russian-language media environment in the EU and its neighborhood.”

Leonid Ragozin has contributed to Business Week, Guardian, Time, Buzzfeed and The New Republic. He previously worked as BBC producer and Russian Newsweek foreign correspondent. He tweets at @leonidragozin

In an article for openDemocracy oDR Russia and beyond blog supported by the UK-based non-profit openDemocracy Foundation for the Advancement of Global Education, Leonid Ragozin questions the impact of BBC, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the Voice of America (VOA) video operations targeting Russia.

“BBC Russian Service, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America all have video operations that could be potentially expanded into fully-fledged channels, but they suffer from a deep existential crisis. Who are they talking to and why? What is their mission (apart from satisfying the ego of their Western managers or government officials who prefer to ignore how little impact these outlets have on their target audiences, despite generous funding)?
 
On the contrary, garage-style projects launched and run by Russians without any foreign assistance, instantly capture vast audiences in Russia and beyond. Despite (or actually thanks to) the immense pressure from the authorities, the now iconic Russian independent channel Dozhd is now surviving entirely by selling subscription to its online broadcast, which perhaps provides the healthiest commercial model for the Russian media market post-Putin. Dozhd is hugely popular with Russophones in the EU, and already provides a viable alternative to Putin’s TV – without any help from the Eurocrats.”

BBG WATCH COMMENTARY: The author is correct, although he does not specifically address any of the Washington bureaucracy issues, that International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Washington bureaucrats and “Russia experts,” who had proposed, authorized and conducted a poll in Russia-occupied Crimea shortly after the annexation by Putin and announced to the world in a Washington press conference in a Voice of America (VOA) report that the vast majority of Crimeans are ecstatic about the Russian annexation, are hardly capable of running anything, much less a Russian-language television program.
 
Prague and Moscow -based Radio Liberty might have a chance under the right conditions and with proper funding if their journalists and contributors in Russia are given sufficient journalistic independence and creative freedom. The author is right that entities based in Russia would be in a much better position to compete and to achieve impact if they had proper funding. What the author does not discuss is what happens when Putin decides to shut down all independent TV operations in Russia, not just their access to network distribution channels and individual stations (which has already happened), but completely.
 
That’s why U.S.-funded surrogate media outlets like Radio Liberty are important and deserve good management and more funding from the new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO Andy Lack and the BBG Board with the emphasis on good in terms of both management and funding. The Voice of America (VOA) has a different, non-surrogate role under the VOA Charter which is also important and would serve a different purpose.
 
Combining VOA and Radio Liberty content into one package is probably the most confused branding concept one can think of in targeting the Russophones in Russia and abroad.

Speaking to the Russophones

By Leonid Ragozin

English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish – these are the top six most widely spoken languages in the EU, according to Eurobarometre. Unlike them, the one that ranks seventh on the list doesn’t enjoy an official status in the union that now spans two thirds of Europe. It is Russian, spoken by around 6% of EU residents.

Admittedly, for most of them it is a second language – 1% of EU residents name Russian as their mother tongue, which in absolute figures is comparable to the population of Denmark or Finland. Russian is also much more widely used than major immigrant languages, such as Turkish and Arabic.

Whether the EU likes it or not, millions of its residents, to a varying extent, belong to the Russophone cultural sphere, or, if we may use the term favoured by Kremlin propaganda – the “Russian world”. For years, however, the EU’s collective attitude to its Russophone component ranged between indifference, and the desire to gradually eradicate it as the unfortunate legacy of Communism and imperial expansionism.

But the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the risks of the EU (and the West in general) alienating the Russophones, and failing to reach out to people in Russia proper. In the absence of viable alternatives, Russian-speakers turn into easy prey for the highly efficient and sophisticated Moscow propaganda machine. This is a high and immediate security risk for EU neighbourhood countries, and a considerable headache for EU-members in the eastern Baltics, where native Russian-speakers make up to a third of the population.

Europe should have stood up a long time ago and said that the Russian language is not owned by the Kremlin. But the idea of launching a Russian-language TV channel based in the EU, emerged only now, when Latvia, the country with the highest percentage of Russian-speaking population, took over the EU presidency. It was endorsed by Central European neighbours as well as by several Western countries, most notably the UK. But is this plan realistic?

The propagandist effect

Russian media holdings churn out mega-tonnes of super-expensive entertainment shows and series, from really tacky ones to the arguably intellectual. The propagandist effect is achieved by inserting extremely biased and toxic news bulletins and political commentaries into this constant flow of soap. Political programmes are also a kind of entertainment or mass hypnosis – instead of accurately describing the events, they aim at creating a fantasy universe, in which Russia is an island of sanity and stability while the rest of the world is on the verge of apocalypse.

In 2013, Russia’s Сhannel One alone spent 760 million euro, which is over 10% of the Latvian government’s annual budget. Two other major Russian channels, Rossiya and NTV, can afford spending of comparable amounts. But although it is a loss-making enterprise, Channel One nevertheless returned most of the money it spent in 2013 because Russia is a huge and lucrative retail market, so commercials cost a fortune.

Speaking the same language

There is simply no way EU countries can afford to replicate the Russian entertainment/propaganda machine. It is not even worth trying. An Al Jazeera-style transnational live news channel (with elements of entertainment) is a more realistic plan, but again, where is that big-spending emir in the EU who can pull it off?

The story of European and American news organisations trying to connect with the Russian-speaking audience is sad and dull. The only Western news channel broadcasting in Russian language is Euronews – a boring and toothless affair, partly owned by the Russian government through its main media holding VGTRK.

BBC Russian Service, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America all have video operations that could be potentially expanded into fully-fledged channels, but they suffer from a deep existential crisis. Who are they talking to and why? What is their mission (apart from satisfying the ego of their Western managers or government officials who prefer to ignore how little impact these outlets have on their target audiences, despite generous funding)?

On the contrary, garage-style projects launched and run by Russians without any foreign assistance, instantly capture vast audiences in Russia and beyond. Despite (or actually thanks to) the immense pressure from the authorities, the now iconic Russian independent channel Dozhd is now surviving entirely by selling subscription to its online broadcast, which perhaps provides the healthiest commercial model for the Russian media market post-Putin. Dozhd is hugely popular with Russophones in the EU, and already provides a viable alternative to Putin’s TV – without any help from the Eurocrats.

If a Russian-language channel under the auspices of the EU ever becomes a reality, it will suffer from the same awkwardness that has been dogging the relations between the EU and Russophones in general since the European Union union was created. What is the EU’s plan for Russia? Will it ever start thinking about integration or will it keep pretending that Russia is somehow on a different planet, and not here in Europe? The EU acts on behalf of the whole of Europe, it likes to be dubbed ‘Europe’, so what, then, is its message to the Russophone world, an integral part of that very same Europe?

Practical issues

On top of that, there are a number of practical issues that can only be resolved with generous funding. Crucially, where the studios should be located, considering that on six out of seven days a week the most relevant and interesting guests will be either in Moscow or in Kiev. Operating on a shoe-string budget, you’ll end up with inappropriately laidback presenters emerging from their untroubled life in Riga or Berlin, and talking to the same pair of pundits for 30 minutes in a row. If that’s the plan, then it’s better to scrap it right away.

Ultimately, knowing the realities of EU officialdom, what are the chances of Eurocrats inspiring a channel that will grab the attention of people they have only theoretical knowledge about?

Instead of watching taxpayers’ money sucked into the void, it might make more sense to run a tender offering several long-term loans to a limited number of privately-owned Russian-language start-ups that will compete with each other, creating a healthier and more vibrant Russian-language media environment in the EU and its neighbourhood. With hundreds of good journalists in dire straits because of Putin’s clampdown on free media, undoubtedly there will be a few good projects to choose from.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact [openDemocracy]. Please check individual images for licensing details.

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Broadcasting Board of Governors has negative impact in former Soviet republics, Gallup says

 
February 5, 2016

BBG Watch Commentary
 
Most Former Soviet Union Residents Who Use Western and Russian Media Trust Russian Media More
 
With IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, Broadcasting Board of Governors’ longtime executive providing strategic editorial guidance, sitting under a large slide showing that Most Residents of the former Soviet Union Who Use Western and Russian Media Trust Russian Media More,” Gallup, the international polling and management consulting organization, told a Washington audience Thursday that Russia is winning information war in former Soviet states, with Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) failing to effectively counter Russian propaganda.

Another Gallup and Broadcasting Board of Governors slide at the conference, “Assessing Russia’s Influence in Its Periphery: Is Russia Really Winning an Information War?,” showed that Russia is not only winning the information war, but that programs produced by BBG media entities may actually have a negative impact for the United States.
 
Support for Crimea Joining Russia Is Higher Among Adults Who Use Both Russian and Western Media
 
Whether such Gallup polls, conducted in countries or territories such as Crimea where individuals may be afraid to provide true answers to unknown pollsters, can be viewed as reliable is a question that has been raised by some experts not only in the U.S., but also in Ukraine and in Russia.

In 2014, BBG officials — U.S. government executives of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau who control millions of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars — rushed to conduct a “public opinion poll” in Crimea merely a few weeks after it was occupied and annexed by Russia without asking the Ukrainian government for permission and most likely without clearing it with the U.S. State Department. Afterwards, BBG/IBB executives did not cast any doubts on the validity of their Crimea poll and did not point out in their June 3, 2014 press release that the United States Government considers the annexation of Crimea by Russia to be illegal and to be against international peace, strategic stability and U.S. interests. They did not say that this was the first annexation by force of a territory of a sovereign European state since the end of World War II. VOA reported at that time that “‘It [Crimea ]is part of Russia now, and you saw that the support is huge for Russian government’, said [Gallup pollster] Esipova.” Neither BBG officials nor VOA in its June 2014 report noted that significant minorities in Crimea, including the Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, may have been living in fear of Russia as the occupying power and perhaps unlikely to share honestly their their views with complete strangers. Neither BBG officials nor VOA mentioned the Crimean Tatars who constitute about 12 percent of Crimea’s population.

SEE: 75th Anniversary of Sumner Welles Declaration – U.S. Public Diplomacy from Success to Failure at BBG, BBG Watch, July 16, 2015.

 
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VOICE OF AMERICA

 

News / USA

 

Pollster: Russia Winning ‘Information War’ in Former Soviet States

 
Photo Not Reposted
 
FILE – Colonel Sergei Storozhenko, commander of the military unit in the village of Perevalnoye, Crimea, talks to the media outside Simferopol, March 6, 2014, the day that Crimea’s parliament voted to join Russia.
 
Jonas Bernstein
 
February 04, 2016 8:19 PM
 
Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and its subsequent support for armed separatists in the eastern part of the country, has been accompanied by a major Russian information campaign in support of those actions.
 
That campaign has targeted not only Russia’s domestic audience but also audiences in neighboring states that receive Russian media and, because of having once been part of the Soviet Union, are home to a significant number of Russian-language speakers.
 
A group of experts held a conference Thursday in Washington to assess whether Russia is winning the battle for influence in neighboring countries. One of those experts, from a leading polling organization, stated unequivocally that it is.
 
The conference, “Assessing Russia’s Influence in Its Periphery: Is Russia Really Winning an Information War?” was organized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent U.S. government agency that oversees all government-supported U.S. civilian international media, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and by Gallup, the international polling and management consulting organization.
 
Presentations at the conference were based on what the organizers described as “the latest media consumption and attitudinal findings from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova,” along with Gallup 2014 World Poll data from 12 countries that once were part of the Soviet Union.
 
The 2014 Gallup World Poll found that “a vast majority” of people in 12 countries that were part of the Soviet Union were following the news about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea very closely during the conflict in 2014, with more people considering Russian media as a more reliable source than Western media. Majorities of the respondents in Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Armenia and Uzbekistan deemed Russian media “reliable” for news about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea.
 
Warning to West
 
Gallup found that majorities in most of the former Soviet states supported Crimea becoming part of Russia, and that respondents who used Western media in addition to Russian media were even more likely to support Crimea becoming part of Russia than those who only used Russian media.
 
Neli Esipova, Gallup’s director of research for global migration and the Gallup World Poll’s regional director for 29 Eastern European and former Soviet countries, said at Thursday’s conference that those 2014 Gallup World Poll respondents in the 12 former Soviet states who lived in urban areas and were better educated tended to be more supportive of Russia’s policy in regard to Crimea.
 
“If the West wants to participate in forming the opinion of people in this region, it will clearly need to makes some changes in its communications strategy,” Esipova said. “And those changes have to be made not only in the content, but in the tone of how people present information, how the West presents information. The uniqueness of this region is that people in this region have very strong ties to Russia, and the Russian media knows its audience, and knows how to appeal to it.”
 
Esipova concluded: “In this round of the information war, the Russian media have won.”
 
Another conference participant, Jeffrey Trimble, deputy director of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau, said the West must formulate a response to the enhanced media capabilities of both authoritarian states and terrorist organizations.
 
“The 21st century is seeing a new intensity and scale of media manipulation, psychological warfare and disinformation,” he said. “The increasingly sophisticated use of media by authoritarian regimes, the advances in information war by Russia, China, ISIS, are throwing up new challenges, from technical questions about the power of social media through to deeply philosophical issues about the nature of truth and reality.”
 

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Reform Radio Liberty or Continue to Lose Propaganda War with Russia

 
February 10, 2016

EXCLUSIVE OPINION for BBG Watch

Day view of the Red Square, Moscow Kremlin and Lenin mausoleum, Moscow, Russia

Reform Radio Liberty or Continue to Lose Propaganda War with Russia

By Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
 
Zygmunt DzieciolowskiIn times of communist dictatorship, Western-funded media targeting their audiences in the USSR and Eastern Europe had a simple task. They had a clear mission to represent democratic values and human rights, while their readers and listeners were keen to get access to any media free of censorship. To some degree, radio stations such as BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty enjoyed a monopoly for the truth. Millions of listeners around the entire communist world spent nights trying to tune to their signals and to find a frequency free of jamming. They looked there for something they had no chance of finding in their own national media, which was controlled and censored by communist regimes.

After the collapse of communism, this kind of information monopoly was gone. In many cases, Western governments discontinued broadcasting to new post-communist democracies where local media started to produce unrestricted and diversified content. Russia and the majority of post-Soviet republics were, however, a different case. Their newly-born democracies were extremely fragile, and in most cases soon replaced by autocratic regimes.

Liberal democracy has been destroyed in Russia, but even Putin’s Kremlin doesn’t attempt to restrict the media in the way that Communist regimes did. I often meet people who have never been to Putin’s Russia and believe that Russian TV and print media are subject to censorship nearly as strict as in the Brezhnev era. This is simply not true. The reality is more complicated. But the Kremlin’s clampdown on independent media is, in its impact in Russia and beyond, almost as threatening to peace and human rights in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere as the communist monopoly on the truth was during the Soviet period.

Kremlin and other post-Soviet regimes are hybrid in their nature and use much more sophisticated methods to limit the influence of the independent media than blind censorship and brutal repression. Under the late President Boris Yeltsin, Russia developed a well-diversified media market, with TV stations, print media and online news services representing different views and ideas. Afterwards, Putin’s regime imposed strict controls on major national television channels. But even now Russians have access to a variety of independent media outlets, some of which are still not afraid to criticize the Kremlin.

This means that such organizations as the American-funded Radio Liberty have to compete now with other Russian media and news organizations not always representing the official Russian point of view. In this respect, the Russian Service of Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) did rather well in the nineties. Its coverage of the dramatic Moscow events in October 1993, or of the First Chechen war, earned Radio Svoboda respect and credibility.

A lot has changed since then. Russian media sponsored by the West are not only losing the propaganda war with the Kremlin, they are also failing to compete with the independent media in Russia.

Kremlin’s skillful and efficient propaganda ensures its position on a number of issues is accepted in the post-Soviet world. It is not only a question of Moscow using more sophisticated propaganda tools than the West. Russia still has some soft power left in influencing public opinion in the old Soviet republics. A degree of nostalgia for the Soviet times can be felt among the old generation. For some in Central Asian nations, life in the Soviet times had some advantages over the new free market economy. These republics were heavily subsidized and Moscow supported local cultural elites. Now, masses of Tajiks and Kyrgyz migrants in search of work end up sweeping Moscow streets and working on construction sites. Moscow’s message for them is that their present misery has been caused by the collapse of USSR, and guess who was responsible for this: the United States and the West. Russian film and music stars are still popular in the entire post-Soviet world.

Russian television plays an important role too. Major Russian channels are produced by true professionals, who have proven their ability to deliver highly-polished content. The post-Soviet world is not only watching Russia TV news, but also popular entertainment shows, soap operas, serials, other programs. Viewers from the old Soviet republics, from Tajikistan and Armenia to Belarus and Moldova know well that their local TV stations lack the resources to produce something as good as Russian TV. Major Russian channels produce also news and political shows promoting Kremlin’s point of view. Even now in times of economic crisis, Russian TV is oiled by big budgets and can afford reporting on a scale that the genuinely free Eastern European national TV channels can only dream of. Russian TV correspondents are reporting from all corners of the world. Their bosses spare no expense to cover Syria, Turkey, Iran, the European migrant crisis, and the American presidential election (of course the way they cover these stories is good for Russia’s interests). 

Better educated independent Moscow audience likes to boast of not watching these national channels, which they call “Goebbels TV”. But Dmitri Kiselyov, Vladimir Solovyov, Dmitri Kulikov, Margarita Simonyan, to name just a few, learned well what has to be said and how for the majority of people to believe that Washington and NATO are responsible for Russia’s problems, falling oil prices, the Ukrainian crisis, the Syrian war, European migrant crisis, etc. In various political talk shows, they condemn American puppet masters for organizing color revolutions, for bringing instability to different regions, for promoting Washington’s own political agenda. A participants of one such talk show on Crimea maintained that it was America which deliberately pushed Russia into the Crimean crisis in order to be able to create a worldwide image of Russia as a dangerous enemy.

Support for Crimea Joining Russia Is Higher Among Adults Who Use Both Russian and Western Media

Longtime BBG executive and former RFE/RL acting president, IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, listening to Gallup presentation, as reported by Voice of America: “Pollster: “Russia Winning ‘Information War’ in Former Soviet States | VOA News.” BBG Watch: this independent courtesy photo suggests that some BBG programs may even have a negative impact for the United States.

The Western effort to communicate with the old Soviet zone has been very poor in comparison. Radio Liberty’s Russian Service coverage of the current Ukrainian crisis provides a good example of an inadequate response. Pro-Kremlin Russian audience found the coverage offered by the state TV channels convincing. People believed Putin was right to annex Crimea. They believed that the demonstrations in Kyiv were controlled by extremist fascists groups. They became convinced that the Ukrainian authorities were pursuing U.S. interest and were responsible for the atrocities in Donbas. According to Kremlin’s propaganda, the Ukrainian crisis was created by Washington.

Those Russians who disbelieved the official propaganda on the Ukrainian crisis were a minority, perhaps 10%, but Western-funded media such as Radio Liberty were not their first choice for news and opinions. Independent Russian media outlets working on tight budgets were able to provide reliable coverage of the Ukrainian crisis. On several occasions TV RAIN, Novaya Gazyeta, Kommersant daily, Lenta.ru broke major news stories which were later picked up by the international media. Their correspondents reported from Kiev, Donetsk, Lugansk, Odessa, Mariupol. They interviewed Ukrainian politicians, Donbas separatists. They produced evidence of the Russian Army’s involvement in military operations in Eastern Ukraine (Yelena Kostyuchenko at Novaya Gazieta, Ilya Barabanov at Kommersant daily).

I remember well a book I read many years ago written by an American journalist Robert St. John. During the World War II, he worked as the Eastern European and Balkan correspondent for the Associated Press. Each time his agency failed to report the news ahead of their main rival, UPI, he would get a cable from his head office with a question which was also a warning:

“UPI 5 minutes ahead. How come?”

Timeliness was not the only problem. Radio Liberty’s Russian Service coverage of the Ukrainian crisis was a sad failure in other respects. It was even a bigger disappointment for those who remembered Russian Service’s correspondent Andrei Babitsky’s heroic reporting from the First Chechen War (1994-1996).

Another example of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service failure to compete successfully with the other Russian independent media outlets was the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky from labour camp and his subsequent expulsion to the West. During the first few days of his stay in the Berlin Adlon Hotel, Khodorkovsky gave a number of interviews to different media, such as The New Times weekly, TV RAIN, and REN-TV, but Radio Liberty was not among them, even though Radio Liberty earlier had made a real effort to report on his two trials. Why the Russian Service did not send Maryanna Torocheshnikova to Berlin remains a mystery? She had done such an excellent job of reporting on Khodorkovsky’s case and had befriended his parents. This could have paved the way for her to have access to the exiled oligarch, but Radio Liberty shown no initiative.

Even more frustrating is that the RFE/RL management has not drawn any conclusions from its Ukrainian failure. Just few days ago I watched a new edition of their new TV/video project, “Current Time.” It is a news show anchored by Timur Olevsky, a former star of TV RAIN, now Russia’s only independent TV station. Olevsky at TV RAIN was their war correspondent in Ukraine. Dressed in a bullet-proof vest he told viewers the cruel truth about the Ukrainian crisis, the contrast between his soft voice and gentle manners and the atrocities of the war only increasing the power of his message.

Radio Liberty brought Timur Olevsky to Prague and made him the anchor of “Current Time.” They dressed him in a fashionable suit and tie. This is a different Olevsky; his old style is gone. He is now learning new skills of anchoring a news program, copying his successful and more experienced colleagues from his old TV RAIN station.

At a time when Radio Liberty could use such a compelling journalistic personality, it has, inexplicably, chosen to misuse one of its best. Olevsky should be on the Syrian-Turkish border now, talking to refugees fleeing the Russian bombardment of Aleppo, not sitting in a Prague studio dressed in a suit.

In its present shape, the “Current Times” program has a long way to go to win the audience. The way it looks now, it has no chance to compete with either the poorly-financed independent TV RAIN or the super-rich pro-Kremlin national TV channels.

The old Radio Liberty Russian Service is something different. It is still a strong brand. It still has great journalists. Some of its programs, debates, and interviews are done according to the highest professional standards. But overall, Radio Liberty seems to have lost the power and appeal it used to have in the past. Even the Kremlin, while accusing Washington of being the source of all major international problems, gives little attention to Radio Liberty funded by the U.S. Congress.

In communist times, it was a completely different story. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were accused all the time of being the tool of ideological warfare. These days, the Kremlin accusations are directed at the local independent media, often presenting them as the “Fifth Column” against Russia. Various think tanks, Brookings Institution, Soros’ Open Society Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy are accused by the Kremlin and its media of representing a real threat to Russia’s stability, but not Radio Liberty.

Radio Liberty’s problems are similar to those experienced in the past by Russia’s major opposition newspaper Novaya Gazyeta.  Its audience knew it was an honest media outlet. Its journalists, Anna Politkovskaya and Yuri Shtchekotchikhin paid for their courageous reporting with their lives. Putin critics agreed with the paper’s position on most issues. But around 2010, Novaya Gazyeta became a dull, old-fashioned newspaper. At the same time Russian media world was full of the new talent. New print and online projects such as lenta.ru, Russian Esquire, Russian Newsweek, Snob.ru, Vedomosti newspaper, were creative, vibrant and appealed to the public. Their journalists would meet in popular Moscow clubs and cafes such as Jean Jacques or Mayak, exchanging ideas, holding professional discussions, looking for new ways to address the needs and concerns of their audience.

The Ukrainian war and the regime’s autocratic development eventually changed the Russian media landscape. Some of the successful projects were either shut down (Newsweek Russia, old Lenta.ru) or lost some of their appeal (Ekho of Moscow Radio), but Novaya Gazyeta found a new mission. Joined by young journalists, such as Pavel Kanygin (another Ukrainian war correspondent) and Yelena Kostyuchenko, it underwent a very successful facelift. It is now again a vibrant newspaper and a strong voice attracting wide attention. 

Radio Liberty needs this kind of transformation. The former Russian Service director tried to hire new talent. One of them was former REN TV channel star Roman Super. She employed also young journalists just starting their professional career. But in the absence of an effective overall strategy, neither Super nor these young journalists had enough guidance and fresh energy to ensure the kind of transformation that is needed.

Another lesson to be learned by the RFE/RL Russian Service is from the success of the Meduza online news project. It was founded by the former lenta.ru news service journalists and editors who quit their jobs in an unprecedented solidarity gesture following dismissal of their boss Galina Timchenko. She was fired by the lenta.ru’s owner, oligarch Alexander Mamut who was acting on the instructions from the Kremlin. The authorities were mad at Lenta’s coverage of the Ukrainian crisis

Having lost their old jobs, Timchenko and her colleagues did not give up. They found investors willing to support their new project meduza.io. Its head office is based in the Latvian capital Riga, but they have a network of correspondents and writers working for them in Russia. Meduza had the right approach. It is creative and flexible. It offers a great news service and attractive longer features. It provides innovative online solutions. Meduza has great stars among its writers such as Ilya Azar. Unfortunately compared to Meduza, Radio Liberty’s Russian Service is an old, slow, retiring elephant. 

For RFE/RL, loyalty to its heritage and continuity are as important as the need to modernize and to keep pace with the changing media landscape. Recent former directors did more harm than good. It seems that their priorities were not change, transformation and modernization, but staff reshuffles aimed at enforcing discipline and strengthening their own positions. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it is also the internal mechanism of RFE/RL and Broadcasting Board of Governors organization which makes such changes difficult to implement. If that is the case, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and members of Congress must understand that reforming RFE/RL’s Russian Service simply cannot be delayed any longer. Otherwise, there will soon be yet another conference in Washington or another congressional hearing at which experts will do more lamenting about U.S.-funded media losing the propaganda and information war with Putin’s Russia.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist who has covered USSR, Russia and other post Soviet states since 1988. His articles have been published by major European newspapers and magazines. From 2008-2013 he was co-editor of the online magazine openDemocracy Russia.

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