International Broadcasting Bureau – We Define Success By Being Dysfunctional and Defunct – Information War Lost: A Map, Malice and Mission Impossible
By The Federalist
Yet again, another incomplete, disingenuous and misleading press release from the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) in the name of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG):
“Russia Clamps Down Further on U.S. International Media,” (April 4, 2014).
Those pesky Russians – especially Vladimir Putin and Dimitry Kiselev.
In brief, the BBG has been told by Dimitry Kiselev, director of Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) that it would not cooperate with the BBG for continuing agency programming on Russian soil, via a single AM radio frequency in Moscow, as the agency press release puts it, “the last vestige of Voice of America (VOA) programming…”
Don’t Know Much About History: A Selective Memory Exercise
It appears that IBB staff succeeded in making Chairman Shell and the rest of the BBG Board look foolish by this press release, juxtaposed to the historical record:
The press release condemns forced ending of VOA broadcasts inside Russia. But many people in Washington know that back in 2008, the BBG had decided to unilaterally end all direct Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia and to eliminate production of all VOA Russian radio news programs. The former BBG Board had decided in 2008 to stop producing VOA radio programs in Russian or any kind, whether they would be distributed via shortwave, via medium wave on a leased AM transmitter in Moscow, by a leased AM transmitter in Lithuania, leased transmitters in eastern Ukraine, on the Internet, on satellite or any other platform. All Voice of America Russian radio broadcasts on all of these platforms had ceased in July 2008 on recommendation of IBB strategic planners and executives.
IBB recommended that not only VOA Russian radio be terminated. They also recommended in 2008 that a direct 30 min. VOA Russian daily satellite television news programs should also be terminated. Their recommendation for ending both direct radio broadcast and direct satellite TV broadcasts to Russia was accepted and implemented. All Voice of America direct Russian radio and TV broadcasting stopped in July 2008. (At the board level, it wasn’t a unanimous decision, but the IBB recommendation was accepted by the majority of then board members.)
Within two weeks after that particular decision, the Russians launched a military operation into the Republic of Georgia (August 2008), targeting breakaway provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Somehow, IBB strategists did not see it coming and also ignored increased restrictions being put on the media in Russia.
VOA journalists, members of Congress, media freedom NGOs and at least one BBG member demanded strongly that VOA Russian broadcasts resume, especially since the AM transmitter in Moscow was still available and was switched to carrying VOA English programming — some English language news, some English lessons, and a lot of music. IBB and most BBG members strongly resisted these demands even while the war was continuing in Georgia. After some weeks, members of Congress finally forced the BBG to allow resumption of VOA Russian radio, but only 30 min. daily Monday through Friday of VOA Russian radio programming was resumed. The program was put back on the leased AM transmitter in Moscow to add to VOA English. This 30 min. of VOA Russian Monday through Friday plus several hours of VOA English programs are now off the Moscow transmitter by the decision of the Russian government. However, many people still remember how hard IBB executives fought to eliminate VOA radio to Russia in 2008 and how they did nothing when dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia were fired in 2012. Some of the same IBB executives ended local rebroadcasts of Radio Liberty Russian programs in eastern Ukraine. Then in 2009, they also recommended and carried out termination of VOA Ukrainian radio broadcasts.
There are current senior members of the IBB who initiated or supported these decisions and are well aware of what went down in 2008, 2009 and 2012. They must not be talking.
For the Russians, killing the last outlet for VOA programming in Moscow, even though it was only 30 min. in Russian Monday through Friday, is their way of embarrassing the United States just a little more. They obviously tweaked the IBB/BBG to the frenzy point.
Mr. Shell is quoted in the press release:
“Moscow has chosen to do the wrong thing and restrict free speech,” said BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. “This is a fundamental value shared by many countries around the world. The BBG will continue to reach audiences in Russia through digital platforms and via satellite transmissions.”
Mr. Kiselev and Mr. Putin obviously work from a different set of values. We read somewhere that Kiselev likened VOA broadcasts as a form of “spam:” content with no merit.
Back in the heyday of the Cold War, the Soviets jammed international broadcasters including VOA. At the same time, international broadcasts by Radio Moscow were readily available via shortwave worldwide, including in the United States. In short, nothing has changed.
In the 21st century, the Russians have demonstrated that they can be real slick in marketing the Russian point of view. RT (formerly known as“Russia Today”) is widely viewed in the West. It has cemented a place in broadcast cable networks. At this time, cable operators are not about to drop RT as long as it proves to be an audience draw.
Mr. Putin knows the United States very well: the great pontificator of global free speech cannot be seen as embracing actions that run contrary to this principle. It’s the perfect conundrum and Mr. Putin is taking full advantage of it. Things are not much different now than during the Cold War.
The other thing that is a little off the mark in the press release is that many countries around the world are becoming less enthusiastic about unrestrained free speech. Freedom Watch and others show that the reins are being pulled in by many countries, in the name of maintaining social order. To be certain, many of these countries would be rightly labeled autocratic, authoritarian or totalitarian. But even countries less so are tightening up on what is permissible in the way of discourse over radio, television and the Internet.
About reaching Russians via digital platforms and satellite transmissions:
We hope Mr. Shell does not listen to gong-ho VOA executives, who still keep bragging about local program placement in Russia (which is subject to self-censorship in Washington and actual censorship in Russia) or listen to gong-ho IBB strategic planners and marketing specialists who encourage such talk and such program placement as way of increasing audience reach. We also hope that he doesn’t believe the Russians don’t have those media delivery and media placement alternatives targeted for countermeasures. They have the capability. The only question is timing – and that is solely left to the Russians to determine.
Western Internet news sites are not yet blocked in Russia, but does not mean that they won’t be. The head of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service warned of a new Russian censorship law that will go into effect in May and threatens anyone who supports “separatism” with a prison term of up to five years. The Kremlin is counting on self-censorship by journalists working in Russia. Even blocking satellite television transmissions is also not beyond the realm of possibility and the Kremlin would be foolish not to have planned out that scenario either.
In so many words, the agency has fallen into a trap of its own making.
Worse, it is not being honest with the American people about its own hand in the demise of its direct radio broadcasting to Russia.
If you understand how the Russians operate, there is no reason to believe that posturing about digital platforms and satellite transmissions are going to be game changers that materially alter the status quo. The Russians will have it covered, to be sure.
But there’s something else missing from the BBG/IBB press release:
No mention of shortwave radio to Russia or medium wave (AM) transmissions from neighboring NATO countries like Lithuania.
Shortwave radio and AM radio transmissions from friendly countries, which now include not only Lithuania but also the other Baltic states, as well as Ukraine, is the one ace the BBG still holds in its hands.
The IBB hates radio, shortwave radio in particular, but any kind of radio. Our “geniuses” of the IBB have compromised US strategic international broadcasting by terminating much of US Government radio program production and shortwave radio . These guys have done a monumentally successful job of being the actual facilitators of shutting down US Government international broadcasting to Russia (also including live and direct satellite TV newscasts to Russia), more than the Russians themselves. Do the Russians still award the “Order of Lenin” medal? These IBB guys deserve it!
Putin skillfully uses the underlying weaknesses in the IBB “neither strategic nor a plan” strategy against the agency. He is more than willing to watch the IBB kill US broadcasts to Russia and then run around in a maniacal fury when some tiny AM radio station in Moscow, which is controlled by the Russian government, cuts VOA programming.
It must be fun to watch.
A Map, Malice and Mission Impossible
As pointed out in recent BBG Watch posts, the VOA English website unilaterally annexed Crimea to Russia, at least symbolically. The VOA English website posted a color coded map which showed by coloration that Crimea was now part of Russia. Keep in mind the United States Government does not recognize actions by the Russians to assume control over Crimea.
Yet another agency faux pas to add to the list. But when you have become an international symbol for dysfunctional and defunct, what do you expect?
This latest episode from inside the Cohen Building has us asking: how much of this is sheer incompetence or a reflection of something else?
We know these IBB types very, very well. Malice is an integral component of their actions: imposing a hostile work environment, engaging in character assassination against anyone challenging their draconian tactics, undermining agency mission effectiveness.
These individuals have been found out: their “strategic plan” characterized as “neither strategic nor a plan,” their “43 newsrooms” plan to cover news a fiasco, their transmission decisions making it difficult at best to see, hear or read agency program content.
These IBB people must certainly know that the prevailing sentiment is that they have to go. While the most desirable action would be to fire them for cause to improve the efficiency of the Federal Service, the more likely scenario would be to detail them to other duties and take them out of the equation of agency decision-making.
Knowing that, they are left to do two things: (a) take advantage of the slow pace of effecting change in the agency by the BBG by continuing to move forward with their bogus “strategic plan” and (b) acting out their own version of Gotterdammerung and destroy the agency as their discredited cabal gets broken up.
In this process, they will make it virtually impossible for the BBG to salvage the agency and its mission.
This is not a far-fetched scenario. The press release is an apt example: taking a chunk out of the BBG chairman’s credibility and making him look uninformed about the IBB decision to cut VOA Russian radio broadcasts in 2008.
When all you have to offer is being dysfunctional and defunct and every day offers new evidence and examples of the extent to which the agency’s mission effectiveness is being compromised and undermined, there really isn’t much left to do but to close the agency if the IBB is not to be held accountable.
To salvage US Government international broadcasting, Congress would do American taxpayers a big favor by eliminating funding for the IBB, letting the VOA survive with a smaller administrative component and similarly allow the grantee operations to have smaller administrative staff to service their operations. No funding would also facilitate a reduction-in-force (“RIF”) of the IBB, where staff positions have grown by 37% in the last seven years, while IBB executives forced eliminations of numerous programs and journalistic jobs.
US interests would also be well served to find a new approach to broadcasting to the Arab and Muslim world. Radio Sawa and Alhurra television aren’t working and haven’t been working for a very long time.
Last but certainly not least, Chairman Shell needs to understand that as long as the current IBB cabal and others are in place, the plan to have a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) turn the agency around is severely compromised.
It would be unwise to underestimate the willingness of the IBB bureaucracy to undermine any effort to rehabilitate the agency. These IBB types are notorious for smiling to your face while slipping daggers in your back. Just ask Ambassador Victor Ashe and others similarly experienced in dealing with the rogue IBB bureaucracy.
To be effective, a prospective CEO needs a whole lot of “inside the Cohen Building” knowledge and expertise. Someone coming from the private sector would need months to figure things out and all the while dealing with delaying tactics by the IBB and its intended stranglehold on information. And it would be a mistake to believe that these people are giving correct information. They would be more than predisposed to set up the CEO to fail through misinformation.
Like we said, we know these senior agency types very, very well. The only card they have left to play is the Gotterdammerung card. The IBB has no interest in making the agency better and more effective. They are not a part of a rehabilitative vision of the agency’s future.
Trust no one on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building. These press releases demonstrate with increasing frequency that the agency traffics in propaganda, misinformation and deceit.