Voice of America ignores plight of American Greenpeace activists jailed in Russia

BBG Watch Commentary

Dimitri Litvinov

Dimitri Litvinov

The U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) is ignoring two American Greenpeace activists jailed in Russia, one of them a son of a famous Russian dissident, and fails to report on what their American families are doing to obtain their release. VOA also did not report on The New York Times and The Washington Post articles about these two Americans.

Dimitri (Dima) Litvinov’s father, Pavel, was a famous dissident in the Soviet Union. As a child, Dimitri spent four years in Siberian exile after his father took part in the Red Square protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

When his family was forced to leave the Soviet Union and settled in the United States, Dima went to American schools, became an American citizen, earned master’s degree in political anthropology from Wesleyan University, CT, and started working for Greenpeace as a canvasser in 1989. He has worked for Greenpeace US, Greenpeace Russia, Greenpeace International and Greenpeace Nordic in a variety of positions, most recently out of Sweden, where he lived with his Swedish wife and their three children before his recent arrest by the Russian authorities.

Dima Litvinov was part of the group of 30 people aboard a Greenpeace International ship, the Arctic Sunrise, who were arrested and are being kept in prison in the far northern city of Murmansk after staging a high-seas protest last month against oil exploration in the Arctic. They originally faced charges of piracy, which were later reduced to hooliganism. If convicted, they could spend several years in Russian prisons.

Americans and American media, with the notable exception of the taxpayer-supported Voice of America, are paying attention to the plight of Dima Litvinov, as well as to the captain of the Greenpeace ship, Peter Willcox, who is another American citizen sitting in a Russian jail in Murmansk.

The story of Dima Litvinov was featured in a New York Times article, “Activists Feel Powerful Wrath as Russia Guards Its Arctic Claims,” by STEVEN LEE MYERS, The New York Times, Published: October 30, 2013.

“’I didn’t expect my son to get in their clutch’,” the elder Mr. Litvinov said in a telephone interview from Irvington, N.Y., where he settled to teach physics in nearby Tarrytown after being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Steven Lee Myers reported in The New York Times.

Dima’s father, Pavel Litvinov, a member of the board of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation who has lived and worked in the United States for many years, published an op-ed in The Washington Post on October 25, “My son, facing Russian prison for a peaceful protest.”

“Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and 11 Nobel Peace Prize laureates and millions of people around the world have called for the release of the Arctic 30.

Dima and the others are threatened with long prison terms because they love and defend nature. That includes the Russian Arctic, which is threatened by senseless and dangerous drilling.

I know only too well what a prison term in Russia means. I was arrested for participating in 1968 in a demonstration against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Lev Kopelev, Dima’s grandfather on his mother’s side, a Soviet writer, spent eight years in Soviet prison camps because he protested the looting and raping of the German population by Soviet officers and soldiers during World War II, when he fought the Nazi army.

Dima’s grandfather was arrested under Joseph Stalin, and I, Dima’s father, was arrested under Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, but Dima has been arrested under Russian President Vladimir Putin — a former member of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. Is it not the time to break the cycle?”

The 60-year-old captain of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, Peter Willcox, is also an American citizen. The Hartford Courant had an article about Willcox and interviewed his wife, Maggy Willcox. “Detained Greenpeace Captain Calls Family In Norwalk,” By CHRISTINE DEMPSEY, The The Hartford Courant, Published: October 21, 2013.

FoxCT TV had a report, as did CNN, which also interviewed Maggy Willcox who lives in Connecticut. She and her husband have been married only eight months.

Family react to Greenpeace Captain charge, CNN, Posted: October 18, 2013.

CNN

The family of Peter Willcox, an American among the Arctic 30, talks to CNN's Ivan Watson.

The family of Peter Willcox, an American among the Arctic 30, talks to CNN’s Ivan Watson.

FoxCT TV

You would think that the U.S. taxpayer-funed Voice of America (VOA) would also report on the plight of American citizens jailed in Russia for staging a peaceful protest, talk to their families in the United States, or at the very least mention U.S. media articles and TV reports about these two Americans.

While the VOA English news website posted several short news reports on the arrest of Greenpeace activists by the Russian authorities and the charges against them, it did not report on Peter Willcox, Dima Litvinov, or Pavel Litvinov’s article in The Washington Post.

Many of  items on the incident posted on the VOA English news website over several weeks were brief dispatches from Reuters, rather than original VOA reporting. Only one report on the VOA English website identified Peter Willcox as “an American national.” Dimitri Litvinov was not identified on the VOA English website as an American citizen and nothing more was reported about these two Americans. Reuters is a UK-based news agency with an international rather than a U.S. focus. The Voice of America has been repeatedly criticized for relying on Reuters news reports rather than originating its own news reports, especially those on U.S. news developments. Most of the Reuters news items on the incident posted on the VOA website got less than 10 Facebook “Likes.” Short VOA news reports on this topic also did not attract social media attention through the VOA website.

The VOA Russian news website mentioned in one sentence that the two men were Americans, but did not provide online any additional details, more coverage, or interviews. The fact that Dima Litvinov is a son of a famous Russian dissident, well known and respected both in Russia and in the United States, was not mentioned.

If any American citizen thinks that the Voice of America has far more important news to cover than the plight of two Americans in a Russian prison, they would be mistaken. The VOA English news website had posted recently in two days five separate reports, some with videos, on the royal christening in Great Britain and another report on finishing schools in Switzerland. During that time, VOA English news ignored the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates who had called for the release of Greenpeace activists jailed in Russia. The Voice of America English news website has also ignored recently numerous other human rights-related news stories, including the Lech Walesa Human Rights Award for Russia’s most famous political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Critics say that Voice of America journalists are not at fault and describe them as victims of dysfunctional management. Senior VOA correspondents have repeatedly complained about being ignored by senior managers and prevented from doing their job in a professional manner. Inside and outside critics blame top VOA and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives for lack of leadership, mismanaging resources, and undermining news reporting in support of media freedom and democracy.

Sources told BBG Watch that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which has a new dynamic chairman, Jeff Shell, and new members, is planning major management changes at IBB and VOA. IBB is the BBG’s overblown bureaucracy, which over the years has diverted resources to itself from news reporting, programs and programming positions.

Similar reforms have already been initiated at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which is also overseen by the BBG, but fell victim to IBB’s management practices despite its semi-independent status as a surrogate broadcaster. IBB executives have been trying to take over management of BBG’s surrogate media outlets such as RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia (RFA).

Ironically, it was Dima Litvinov’s father, Pavel Litvinov, who was one of the prominent signatories of protest letters sent from Russia and the United States to the BBG that prompted BBG members to initiate reforms at RFE/RL and appoint new executive Kevin Klose to manage the media outfit based in Prague, Czech Republic. The Voice of America is based in Washington, DC with easy access to American families and American supporters of the two American Greenpeace activists imprisoned in Russia. The Voice of America Charter, which is public law in the United States, says that “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”

The RFE/RL English news website posted in early October a lengthy report on the plight of arrested Greenpeace activists and interviewed Dima Litvinov’s Swedish wife, Anita. Families Say Detained Greenpeace Crew ‘Ordinary, Peaceful People’, By Claire Bigg and Aleksandra Vagner, RFE/RL, Published October 11, 2013.

The RFE/RL report, however, did not focus on Litvinov’s and Willcox’s American roots, their American supporters, Dima Litvinov’s famous Russian-American father, and U.S. media publicity about these two American citizens. This would be Voice of America’s job, which VOA has so far failed to do.

The Voice of America has also failed recently on many other human rights-related news stories, including President Obama’s recent meeting at the White House with Pakistani girls’ rights activist Malala Yousafzai, an event covered much more extensively by China’s CCTV and the Voice of Russia than the Voice of America. The VOA newsroom and the VOA web team were alerted to the White House meeting by a VOA correspondent and given all the information well ahead of time but failed to post a comprehensive and journalistically solid news story.

VOA and IBB directors and their deputies disagree with their critics. Voice of America Director David Ensor and his deputy Executive Editor Steve Redisch insist that progress has been made, as do International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo, who recently announced his retirement, and his deputy Jeff Trimble.

Ensor said  “the state of VOA is strong and is getting stronger all the time.” Lobo, the agency’s top manager said that “today we are reaching and engaging audiences like never before.”  The five VOA reports on the royal christening in Great Britain and the report on finishing schools in Switzerland received only a few dozen Facebook “Likes” compared to hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of Facebook “Likes” for news reports on Al Jazeera, BBC, and Russia Today websites. Unfortunately, these websites do not always cover news stories that the Voice of America should be covering. It is not their specific job to report to the world on America and Americans, but when they do, some of them often report on such stories with a strong anti-American bias.

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