BBG Watch Commentary
At the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) open board meeting on February 26, 2016, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) interim manager Nenad Pejic presented a plan for countering and defeating Putin propaganda in Russia and on Russia’s periphery. The plan is based on catching some of the anger energy of engaged digital users.
BBG CEO & DIRECTOR JOHN LANSING: The largest single investment in FY2017 plan is $15 million for expanding digital, social and mobile content, particularly in the Russian periphery. So I’ll start with Nenad [Pejic (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Interim Manager)] about their portion of that $15 million, which is $10 million for RFE/RL. Nenad.
RFE/RL INTERIM MANAGER NENAD PEJIC: Thank you. First of all we want to increase our satellite stream to Russian periphery and Russia itself in digital operation, and this is number one priority, in partnership with our affiliates. The plan is to increase the satellite stream content from six to eight hours in Fiscal ’17.
Number two, I want to say a sentence about U.S. elections.
VOICE: Hey, we can’t hear on the phone. I don’t know if Nenad has his microphone on.
JOHN LANSING: Put your mic on.
NENAD PEJIC: These days when I spent my free time watching TV and I see the election campaign and I see many experts talk about how voters here in the States express their anger, and this is why some of the presidential candidates manage to get them and to vote for them, I want to say that I do recognize some anger in our broadcast area and, of course, anger has completely different content, but whatever you touch in…you see that anger.
Just in terms of the numbers, for instance, so called engaged users on the Facebook at RFE/RL we had last in 2014, we had 60 million, in 2015 we had 115 million engaged users. We want to catch this energy, because, you see, the way they comment on the site, on the sites, the way how they…on the sites, they want to express themselves and to do something. This way I want to catch this energy mostly through digital, digital media. This is why we want to increase digital media operation in Central Asia, launch content related to violent extremism, and, of course, in addition to this, in addition to Russia, increase it to Farda [RFE/RL’s Radio Farda to Iran].
John Lansing is new to his job. He has been CEO at BBG only since last September. He is still figuring out how the agency operates and how its individual media entities are performing. He has been praised for some of the personnel and management changes he initiated at the agency. He has also been criticized on the Hill for opposing some of the structural changes proposed in the bipartisan BBG reform bill H.R. 2323. Some BBG employees are also unhappy that he has kept a few longtime IBB [International Broadcasting Bureau] executives whom these employees blame for mismanagement and poor employee morale at BBG’s headquarters in Washington.
Since the departure in March 2014 of RFE/RL’s previous president, distinguished American journalist and media executive Kevin Klose, the job of countering Putin propaganda has been in the hands of RFE/RL’s interim manager Nenad Pejic and his longtime mentors at the Broadcasting Board of Governors’s bureaucracy in Washington. RFE/RL has not had a permanent CEO for two years.
Prominent Russia experts and media scholars in the United States and in Europe have not been impressed with the RFE/RL TV program “Current Time,” which represents the BBG’s primary response to Putin propaganda in Russia’s periphery.
Former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush, who is also a former Radio Liberty director and Russia and Central Asia expert, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last November that BBG’s response to events in Ukraine has been “feeble.” The committee hearing, “Options for Reforming U.S. Overseas Broadcasting,” was presided by Chairman, Senator Bob Corker (Republican – Tennessee). Ranking Member, Sen. Ben Cardin (Democrat – Maryland) was also present along with several other committee members. At the hearing, S. Enders Wimbush and Kevin Klose expressed general support for bipartisan reform legislation H.R. 2323. John Lansing and BBG Chairman Jeff Shell expressed opposition to H.R. 2323 bill’s proposal to separate the Voice of America from BBG’s surrogate media outlets and to create two specialized oversight boards.
In a highly unusual plea to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, scholar and writer Martha Bayles asked BBG board members to look to qualified outside candidates for the job of permanent president of RFE/RL.
In an article published on the Public Diplomacy Council (PDC) website, Martha Bayles warned about “poor judgment, and a degree of secretiveness, that is the exact opposite of what RFE/RL stands for.” She wrote that when she was in Prague last summer doing research for a report on “best practices” throughout the US international media system, she discovered to her astonishment that a directive had been issued ordering RFE/RL staff not to meet with her. She reported that that directive was widely ignored, but she noted that it reflected poorly on RFE/RL’s senior management.
Another prominent journalist and Russia expert, who during the last few days watched several “Current Time” news programs online, told BBG Watch that “Current Time” is “simply very bad.”
The same expert, however, praised Radio Liberty Russian Service’s separate online coverage of Boris Nemtsov assassination anniversary. The Russian Service recently changed its director.
JOURNALIST AND RUSSIA EXPERT: “Current Time” looks like poor and very provincial news channel. Television needs personalities, Not everybody can make good TV reporter or anchor. “Current Time” is a relay of no names who don’t know how to make viewers appreciate their stories. The author of one of the observations about the program is absolutely right: “Some anchors and journalists at the “Current Time” are often making gag, personal comments. This style echoes the Pro-Kremlin national TV channels. Editorial judgement and news selections are poor, missing is the Western approach. Sometimes “Current Time” is even copying Russian National Press’s mindset.”
“Current Time” totally lacks the creative approach of the independent TV RAIN channel. Neither it has the resources of the Kremlin TV channels.