Paul Goble on the need to reform and save RFE/RL to counter Russian censorship and propaganda

BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary

 

America’s top expert on Kremlin propaganda Paul Goble has commented on the controversy over Radio Liberty’s Tajik Service which, he wrote, “has been criticized for being too cozy with Dushanbe and whose leadership has now been changed.” In one of his Window on Eurasia reports, Goble stressed that “allowing these regimes to manipulate Western journalists cannot be tolerated.”

But Goble also argues against the Trump administration’s FY 2020 budget request, which if approved by Congress in its current form, would  cut the budget of RFE/RL from 124 million US dollars to 87 million US dollars and result in the closing down of the Georgian, Tatar-Bashkir and North Caucasus language services.

“At a time when Vladimir Putin has invaded neighboring countries like Georgia and Ukraine and is seeking to destroy the languages and thus the peoples who speak them within the current borders of the Russian Federation, closing these small services is not just a false economy,” Goble wrote. He considers it “a betrayal of those people and, at the same time, of who we Americans are.”

 

At the same time, Paul Goble advocates for changes and reforms in how the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), has been managing U.S.-funded media outreach abroad.

 

PAUL GOBLE: “Western governments must denounce all such efforts by these regimes to control broadcasting whether informal as in Tajikistan or more legally formalized as in Russia, something they have been less that enthusiastic about doing in the past.  And they must come up with a different strategy in the future.

Closing down these outlets or allowing host governments to do that or to modify what is on them is not acceptable. Both the needs of the populations involved and Western values and interests dictate that.  One possible strategy would be to broadcast via satellite direct-to-home television.
That would be expensive and the transition would not be easy for many audiences. But the messages such stations carry are too important to let anyone distort them or force those who deliver them off the air.”

 

The U.S. Agency for Global Media is still led by holdover Obama administration era appointees who had an input into which RFE/RL language services would be eliminated if the administration-proposed budget cut is approved by the U.S. Congress. U.S. lawmakers can reverse the budget cut and the proposed closings of RFE/RL language services. If the final budget is signed by President Trump and becomes law, RFE/RL programs could be saved if the U.S. Congress decides to save them. A lot may depend on whether members of Congress are convicted  that the agency  and RFE/RL are well managed.

In an appearance on March 27, 2019 before the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs to discuss the Department of State Budget Request for FY 2020, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has called for leadership change at the USAGM. The agency is currently headed by John F. Lansing who has been mired in a series of programming and management scandals.

 

SECRETARY POMPEO: “And I would urge to get a CEO of that organization in place so that the BBG will have the right leadership so they can do the traditional mission – perhaps in a different information environment than we did back in the Cold War, but can perform its function in a way that is important and noble, and reflects the enormous resources that are – that American taxpayers have put towards that.”

READ: Open letter: What is going on at RFE/RL’s Tajik service? Multiple investigations have revealed how Radio Liberty’s Tajik Service systematically cooperates with the country’s repressive Rahmon regime. This needs to change. Open Democracy, March 28, 2019

READ: US-funded broadcaster under scrutiny for enabling Tajikistan’s strongman rule. Tajiks read Radio Ozodi as Washington’s word. Eurasianet, March 26, 2019.

 

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WINDOW ON EURASIA

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Duma Votes to Require Those Preparing and Distributing Foreign News in Russia to Have Moscow’s Permission

Paul Goble

Staunton, April 3 – The Duma on first reading has voted to approve amendments to the administrative code (sozd.duma.gov.ru/bill/632800-7) that would impose fines on anyone preparing or distributing foreign news on the territory of Russia if they do so without permission from the Russian authorities.

If passed, the amended provision of the administrative code would impose fines on individuals of up to 3,000 rubles (50 US dollars) and on companies or offices of up to 30,000 rubles (500 US dollars) for each violation (spektr.press/news/2019/04/03/gosduma-gotovitsya-vvesti-zapret-na-rasprostraneniya-inostrannyh-smi-bez-razresheniya/).

The Russian authorities could certainly make use of these fines to set the stage for the closure of offices of foreign media and especially foreign broadcasters, by setting up a superficially legal arrangement they could employ rather than the more informal pressures they apply now.

Such actions by Moscow, of course, could ultimately cut off Russians from news and information that did not follow the Kremlin line; but even before that, it could have a deleterious effect on the stories that foreign media and foreign broadcasters prepare and broadcast inside Russia.  The impact on broadcasters like RFE/RL and VOA is likely to be especially severe.

During the Cold War, these and other stations like them broadcast to Soviet audiences via shortwave. The transmission sites were abroad and thus beyond the reach of the Kremlin. But with the end of communism and the USSR and changing media consumption habits, most of these Western broadcasters shifted from shortwave to medium wave (FM).

On the one hand, that change has made it far easier for audiences to listen to them as anyone with experience of short-wave knows.  But on the other, it has meant that in most cases, these outlets had to locate their transmission sites inside the countries to which their broadcasts were directed, something that has given some post-Soviet governments a whip hand over them.

Because these regimes can deny broadcast facilities, those who want to reach the population sometimes hold their fire lest they be closed down and not able to reach their intended audience at all. That has had two unfortunate consequences, both of which will be exacerbated by the new Russian measure.

On the one hand, it sometimes means these stations do not criticize the authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere as they deserve, thereby subverting their own raison d’etre and allowing the regime to point to such broadcasts, when they echo the official line, as evidence that the regimes are telling the truth and that foreigners are on their side, not the people’s.

And on the other, it has meant that when Western journalists learn of such practices, they blame the Western journalists on the ground for supposedly selling out rather than recognizing that the latter are only doing what they often feel compelled to do in order to be able to keep broadcasting.

A current example of this involves Radio Liberty’s Tajik Service which has been criticized for being too cozy with Dushanbe and whose leadership has now been changed (eurasianet.org/us-funded-broadcaster-under-scrutiny-for-enabling-tajikistans-strongman-rule, and facebook.com/asem.tokayeva/posts/10156869396346488).

No journalist should be put in the position of having to make such compromises, but many have been – and not just by authoritarian post-communist regimes. When the decision was made in Washington and elsewhere to shift from short-wave to FM and broadcast sites from outside target countries to inside them,  such Hobson’s choices became inevitable.

Given the increasingly authoritarian nature of Russia and many of the other post-Soviet countries, the sources of this problem need to be recognized and addressed. Going back to short-wave broadcasts is probably not a good option given changes in audience tastes. But allowing these regimes to manipulate Western journalists cannot be tolerated.

Western governments must denounce all such efforts by these regimes to control broadcasting whether informal as in Tajikistan or more legally formalized as in Russia, something they have been less that enthusiastic about doing in the past.  And they must come up with a different strategy in the future.

Closing down these outlets or allowing host governments to do that or to modify what is on them is not acceptable. Both the needs of the populations involved and Western values and interests dictate that.  One possible strategy would be to broadcast via satellite direct-to-home television.
That would be expensive and the transition would not be easy for many audiences. But the messages such stations carry are too important to let anyone distort them or force those who deliver them off the air.

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WINDOW ON EURASIA

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Silencing Three Radio Liberty Services Now Would be Profoundly Wrong

Paul Goble

Staunton, March 19 – The author of these lines usually refrains from commenting on US policy not because he doesn’t have strong opinions about it but because that is not the purpose of the Windows on Eurasia series.  But there are occasions when policies are proposed that will have a serious and even deleterious impact on the region Windows does cover.

One of those occasions is now: Yesterday, the Trump Administration released its 2020 budget request. It would cut the budget of RFE/RL from 124 million US dollars to 87 million US dollars and close the Georgian, Tatar-Bashkir and North Caucasus language services (rferl.org/a/trump-administration-2020-budget-request-calls-for-closure-of-three-rfe-rl-language-services/29828716.html).

It is difficult to overstate just how big a mistake it would be if Congress approved that proposal.

My conclusion rests not on the fact that I had the privilege of working at RFE/RL twice, in 1989-1990 and again in 1996-2001, but rather on the experience I have had over a much longer period following developments among the non-Russian peoples of the USSR and now the post-Soviet space.

The Georgian Service continues to perform important work not only informing the people of that country but also signaling American support for the Georgians as they pursue their dream of integration with the West even as part of their country remains under partial Russian occupation and they remain under continuing Russian pressure.

Eliminating that service now would certainly please Moscow, but although it is certain to be packaged as representing Georgia’s “graduation” to a stage where it doesn’t need US broadcasts, that is not how it will appear to those who listen to its message either directly or through the splash effect of stories the service generates and Georgian outlets then spread.

But I am especially concerned about the call for closing the Tatar-Bashkir and North Caucasus language services.  They are small, do not have embassies in Washington to speak for them, and have long been candidates for closure in the minds of those who either do not know the history and purpose of US broadcasts or understand the nature of Moscow’s empire.

Perhaps no other services at RFE/RL routinely break as many stories that otherwise would be passed over in silence by the state-controlled outlets in those two regions or do so much to pass them on via Russian to an even broader audience in the Russian Federation and via their websites to the diasporas from these areas and to Western audiences as well.

Bringing unvarnished information to these peoples is the primary task of these services just as it was in Soviet times. There is no possibility that a Ramzan Kadyrov is ever going to broadcast the truth to his people. Like his patron Vladimir Putin, he will simply pass over in silence any inconvenient stories and lie about most of the others.

The Putins and the Kadyrovs of this world will certainly be delighted by the Trump Administration’s proposal.  But no one in Washington (outside the Russian embassy, of course) should be pleased.  They should recognize how important such broadcasts are to reaffirming what the United States stands for and how important that is for our friends in these places.

In the spring of 1991, when I made my first visit to Estonia, which was then still under Soviet occupation, Lennart Meri, then foreign minister and later president of his country, showed me a remarkable set of notebooks. They recorded his experience on an almost daily basis over almost 40 years of whether he could hear RFE/RL through Soviet jamming.

Most days he could but of course not always, and it was clear that for him, who helped guide his country into the European Union and NATO, these broadcasts were more than about getting news and information, as important as that was. They were a sign that the people and the government of the United States cared about the fate of his people.

Authoritarians in big countries and those who are intimidated by them are often prone to dismiss any but the great powers as “small countries far away about whom we know nothing.” That is what Nevil Chamberlain said when he failed to come to the defense of Czechoslovakia against Hitler’s aggression.

At a time when Vladimir Putin has invaded neighboring countries like Georgia and Ukraine and is seeking to destroy the languages and thus the peoples who speak them within the current borders of the Russian Federation, closing these small services is not just a false economy. It is a betrayal of those people and, at the same time, of who we Americans are.

 

Paul A. Goble, a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia, served as special adviser on Soviet nationality issues and Baltic affairs to Secretary of State James Baker. He is the editor of four volumes on ethnic issues in the former Soviet Union and has published more than 150 articles on ethnic and nationality questions. He worked in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He lectures on Islam, Eurasia geopolitics, and propaganda.

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