U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy condemns Kremlin propaganda and ban on Voice of America in Russia, but VOA English News fails to report his comments

BBG Watch Commentary

Richard Stengel VOA Photo

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel has published on the State Department Blog an opinion article condemning the Kremlin, and specifically Russia’s RT television/multimedia outlet, for engaging in propaganda, which he defined as “the deliberate dissemination of information that you know to be false or misleading in order to influence an audience.”

Under Secretary Stengel also wrote that despite the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign, he would defend the right of RT to broadcast in the United States.

“The First Amendment protects speech that we reject as much as speech that we embrace. The State Department facilitates RT’s coverage by giving them unrestricted access to our briefings. No one is arguing that RT should be taken off the air the way Moscow has abruptly ended the license that allows Voice of America to broadcast to Russians. Free access to information is a basic principle, even if that information is nothing more or less than propaganda. But the network and its editors should not pretend that RT is anything other than another player in Russia’s global disinformation campaign against the people of Ukraine and their supporters.”

Even though Under Secretary Stengel specifically mentioned the Voice of America in his article, VOA did not report his comments on its main English news website. Because no central VOA news report or news item was produced in English about his article, the vast majority of VOA language services also did not report on it.

Those not reporting on Stengel’s comments about RT’s propaganda included the Voice of America Ukrainian Service, which still has not received adequate support and resources from the VOA management to enable it to promptly update its news website and social media pages. The VOA Ukrainian Service produces a television news program that is rebroadcast and highly popular in Ukraine, but an article written by a senior State Department official would be more suitable for reporting on its news website and social media pages. The VOA Ukrainian Service still lacks sufficient management support to provide such additional online news coverage.

The VOA Russian Service, however, did report online on Stengel’s article: Замгоссекретаря США: «Russia Today – это машина искажений, а не новостная организация», VOA Russian Service, April 29, 2014.

Richard Stengel represents Secretary of State John Kerry at meetings of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which manages the Voice of America and other U.S.-funded international media outlets.

He should not feel too bad about his comments on the Kremlin’s propaganda being ignored by VOA English News. The Voice of America also ignored President Obama’s statements on the Holocaust Memorial Day, the Armenian Remembrance Day (1915 genocide), and the Canonization of Pope John XXIII and John Paul II. Previously, VOA also missed, was late in reporting, or provided only superficial coverage of numerous White House, State Department, and U.S. Congress statements and actions on Ukraine and Russia. The VOA news coverage has improved slightly due to relentless criticism from its own journalists and BBG Watch, but VOA still misses important news stories, especially after business hours in Washington and on weekends.

Exceptionally bad management at the Voice of America and the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) has prompted a bipartisan group of members of Congress led by U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Member, to introduce H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act.  The legislation is designed to improve the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters. The House Foreign Affairs Committee press release points out that the VOA Charter states that VOA will provide a “clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States.” “Over time, VOA has abandoned this mission and adopted a mission of the so-called ‘surrogates’ to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies. This legislation makes clear that the Voice of America mission is to support U.S. public diplomacy efforts,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee press release states.

Such strong and additional emphasis on public diplomacy would not have been necessary had VOA executives simply adhered to the news mission as stated in the VOA Charter. They have not. They have undermined news reporting and also mismanaged the organization. VOA Charter-related news reporting would have offered more than sufficient support for U.S. public diplomacy had it been done as already required by the current legislation and had the organization been well managed.

Richard Stengel, who is not responsible for these management failures at VOA and IBB, should be applauded for his timely, well-argued and well-written op-ed. There was no reason why Voice of America English News could not have issued a report or a news item about his comments on RT’s propaganda and the ban on VOA in Russia.

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Russia Today’s Disinformation Campaign

POSTED BY RICHARD STENGEL

APRIL 29, 2014

Moscow is subjecting Ukrainians, Russians and the rest of the world to an intense campaign of disinformation that tries to paint a dangerous and false picture of Ukraine’s legitimate government. Russia Today, the Moscow-based TV network financed by the government, is a key player in this campaign of distortion. Along with its Russian operation, RT operates an English-language broadcast out of Washington.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to RT as a “propaganda bullhorn,” which was promoting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “fantasy.” The result was a predictable howl of protest from RT’s editor, who claimed the State Department knows little about what is really happening in Ukraine today and had the audacity to request an apology.

I spent seven years as the managing editor of TIME magazine before joining the State Department. I understand the difference between news, propaganda and opinion. Propaganda is the deliberate dissemination of information that you know to be false or misleading in order to influence an audience.

From assertions that peaceful protesters hired snipers to repeated allegations that Kiev is beset by violence, fascism and anti-Semitism, these are lies falsely presented as news. An opinion is subjective and not a statement of fact. Opinions, however odious, are defensible speech in a way that false claims are not. RT is a distortion machine, not a news organization.

Consider the way RT manipulated a leaked telephone call involving former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Through selective editing, the network made it appear that Tymoshenko advocated violence against Russia. Or the constant reference to any Ukrainian opposed to a Russian takeover of the country as a “terrorist.” Or the unquestioning repetition of the ludicrous assertion last week that the United States has invested $5 billion in regime change in Ukraine. These are not facts, and they are not opinions. They are false claims, and when propaganda poses as news it creates real dangers and gives a green light to violence.

Sometimes it’s even too much for the people paid to make these claims. The network’s clear bias led to an unprecedented on-air rebellion. First, the host of RT America, Abby Martin, condemned Russia’s invasion of Crimea on a broadcast. Then one of the network’s anchors, Liz Wahl, resigned on air, saying, “I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”

Yet, even so, I would defend the right of RT to broadcast. The First Amendment protects speech that we reject as much as speech that we embrace. The State Department facilitates RT’s coverage by giving them unrestricted access to our briefings. No one is arguing that RT should be taken off the air the way Moscow has abruptly ended the license that allows Voice of America to broadcast to Russians. Free access to information is a basic principle, even if that information is nothing more or less than propaganda. But the network and its editors should not pretend that RT is anything other than another player in Russia’s global disinformation campaign against the people of Ukraine and their supporters.

About the Author:  Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of TIME magazine, is the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Follow him via @Stengel on Twitter.

 

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