BBG Watch Commentary

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian Service did not report on the “fake” interview with a Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which was posted and then withdrawn with an apology to Navalny by the Russian Service of the Voice of America. The VOA English news website also did not report on this incident, but Russian news agency RIA Novosti did in both in Russian and English as did other Russian media outlets and bloggers.

Leon, RFE/RL insider, wrote this commentary from Prague for BBG Watch:

It is worth to note that RFE/RL in its polyglot broadcasts did not mention at all the scandal with Alexey Navalny’s fake e-mail interview – first proudly published and then stealthily pulled by VOA.  VOA’s debacle was broadly reported internationally, especially in Russia. It renders the BBG’s pretenses to portray the present-day RFE/RL as a “surrogate broadcaster” which mends information gaps in target countries, manifestly ridiculous. And that fact was not lost on RFE/RL staff.

At RFE/RL, the predominant feeling is that in crisis situations, the BBG’s mode of operations is to withhold the information from Congress, Administration, and public in order to shield its officials from personal responsibility. Otherwise, how to explain that VOA apology to Alexey Navalny and the audience was, for any practical purpose, anonymous – from some faceless “Russian Service”.  Was it a collective apology for collective blunder? Are the VOA Russian staffers dividing between themselves the responsibilities – and the salary – of Russian Service director? Why the apology was published on VOA site in Russian only, so later it had to be translated into English by the Russian news organization RIA Novosti for its report?  Why the VOA director himself did not apologize to Navalny?  After all, Navalny is not just another Russian blogger but internationally prominent opposition figure. Did BBG report on its site how the Voice of America undermines anti-Putin democratic opposition in Russia?

What are the personnel consequences, if any, of the VOA’s “exclusive”, which many in Russia — just check Russian blog scene — habitually interpret as some kind of conspiracy?  For it is a public knowledge (not at VOA?) that Alexey Navalny, after his detention last December, shuns mass media and interviewers.

Questions asked at RFE/RL — controlled and directed by the same BBG as is VOA, its “sister-broadcaster” — is not just an idle curiosity. RFE/RL old-timers recall that in September of 1992, when BBG did not yet exist and the Radio still was in Munich, its Moscow bureau submitted a report quoting verbatim Alexandr Yakovlev, an ally of Mikhail Gorbachev. Allegedly, Yakovlev criticized Gorbachev publicly and was about to turn his back on him. Yakovlev sent to RFE/RL an indignant letter: he never said anything like that and never talked to the imaginative RFE/RL reporter. The then Director of the Russian Service of Radio Svoboda (as RFE/RL is known in Russia), personally apologized to Alexandr Yakovlev on air; the reporter was fired; Yakovlev granted RFE/RL an exclusive interview. (Later, former RFE/RL reporter developed into well-known Russian nationalist who presently attacks Navalny…)

Already in Prague and under BBG, RFE/RL had more than enough “memorable” editorial troubles. Scandal at VOA dusts them off.    

On April 26, 2010 the avalanche of feedback letters to the one-sidedly pro-Turkish  report from Istanbul, “Why so many historians in Turkey study the issue of Armenian genocide,” was, together with the report, removed from the website of RFE/RL Russian Service. But not from the long Internet memory: “How Disgusting!”  “Ashamed of Radio Liberty,” “Shame on you! Shame and disgrace!” “Radio Liberty has long ceased to be the Radio Liberty,”  “One’s heart bleeds to hear and read such a nonsense,” “Confusing is unprofessionalism of Radio Liberty,”  etc.

It’s enough to substitute “VOA” for “Radio Liberty”, and analogy with recent scandal at the VOA Russian Service is impossible to overlook.  But here it also ends. The Russian Service director who at the time of ill-fated feed from Istanbul was not even in Prague, in his own name apologized to RFE/RL listeners and readers. However, in today’s parlance ascribed to the “high BBG official” (intermittently called at RFE/RL by his proper name and/or the unflattering nickname), present director of the Russian Service unmistakably belongs to those endangered  “old white guys” who missed the train to impersonal new brave world of BBG-VOA-RFE/RL.

Analyzing the causes of editorial unprofessionalism sweeping RFE/RL, the multilingual Armenian Daily AZG (People) wrote:  

“It came from indifference. And that, in its turn, stems from the general atmosphere at RFE/RL – the atmosphere of hypocrisy and cynicism … . The editors could not care less. Practically all the staff of RFE/RL language desks and services knows that they are just the rightless mercenaries hired to talk about human rights – on the air for the pay. Everyone at RFE/RL knows that the court case of Armenian Anna Karapetian v. RFE/RL is pending in the Czech Supreme court; and the lawsuit of Croatian citizen Snjezana Pelivan is submitted to the European Court of Human Rights. Everyone knows that international media cover these court cases regularly – but not the RFE/RL own webpages. Everyone knows that Czech parliament already twice, in connection with Karapetian’s and Pelivan’s lawsuits discussed the issue of national discrimination of RFE/RL foreign employees. Everyone knows that RFE/RL personnel policies are developed and approved by the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington. Everybody knows that empty words diverge with deeds, and the deeds are drifting from bad to worse.”

Would some parts of that analysis be also applied to VOA? In any case: How lucky is BBG that RFE/RL staff is excluded from OMP’s yearly surveys concerning employees’ work-place satisfaction.