Crimea annexation anniversary: How BBG and VOA initially helped to advance Putin’s narrative

BBG Watch Commentary

Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Crimea on Friday to mark the second anniversary of the peninsula’s annexation.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senators Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Chris Murphy, a New York Democrat, have introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at countering propaganda from Russia, China and other countries.

Unlike another bipartisan bill, H.R. 2323 designed to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which includes a long list of management problems at the agency in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets targeting international audiences, the Portman-Murphy bill has hardly any mention of the BBG as if the $750 million federal agency didn’t exist and had no impact. The authors of the proposed legislation and panelists at this week’s presentation of the bill at the Atlantic Council in Washington had very little to say about the BBG for a good reason.

There is no doubt, however, that both the Portman-Murphy bill and H.R. 2323 are attempts to deal with the BBG’s “practically defunct” status as described in 2013 by the then Secretary of State and ex officio BBG member Hillary Clinton.

BBG Watch has documented numerous examples of how due to mismanagement, poor editorial controls and insufficient resources, the Voice of America with the help of BBG executives, some of whom are still at the agency, was most likely inadvertently but definitely helping with inappropriate use of U.S. government resources and poor reporting to advance Vladimir Putin narrative shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

While some of the bad reporting has diminished due to recent personnel changes at the BBG and VOA, including the hiring in September 2015 of new BBG CEO and Director John Lansing, allegations persist that such sloppy VOA reporting favoring Vladimir Putin or in one case Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria has not stopped altogether. BBG and VOA officials deny these accusations of inadvertent spreading of Kremlin or terrorist propaganda, which has indeed diminished due to outside criticism and the departure of several BBG and VOA managers, but outside experts and observers still point out that what BBG, VOA and BBG’s grantee media outlet Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) are doing may not be as bad as it was earlier but is still “feeble” and of poor quality.

While BBG, VOA, and RFE/RL trumpet their new Russian-language TV program designed to counter Putin’s propaganda on the periphery of Russia as a great success, prominent independent Russia experts and journalists disagree. This is how one European journalist and Russia experts who is a fluent Russian speaker and reports frequently from Russia described it:

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.

Panelists at the Atlatic Council event pointed out the importance of indigenous media in countering Kremlin propaganda. The Portland-Murphy bill would provide funding to help these independent media. These independent media outlets, some of which still operate in Russia or partially from neighboring countries, are vastly outperforming VOA and RFE/RL online, including social media, even though VOA and RFE/RL are much better funded by American taxpayers. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty are not as bad as they were in 2014, but they are still in a failed state with no meaningful structural reforms or progress in sight. That’s why the Portman-Murphy bill and the Royce-Engel H.R. 2323 bill deserve all the support they can get from Republicans and Democrats.

Everyday without reform, inaccurate reporting by the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty can inadvertently advance Putin’s and ISIL’s agenda, which in turn can lead to innocent lives being lost in eastern Ukraine, in the Middle East, and Africa. This problem is far more serious than most Americans realize. People’s lives are literally at stake. The problem of the defunct Broadcasting Board of Governors agency needs to be addressed through legislation and reforms as soon as possible.

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