Guest Commentary

Putin’s Judicial Intimidation Against Voice of America and Radio Liberty Seems To Be Working

By Ted Lipien
I have been checking both Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) English and Russian websites on two important historical anniversaries this month to see whether these U.S. taxpayer-funded institutions would violate the recent Russia’s Supreme Court ruling against making public statements that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had invaded Poland in 1939. It appears that at least on the two important WWII Nazi-Soviet anniversaries, staff journalists working for both VOA and Radio Liberty have been obeying the Russian law applied recently against Perm blogger Vladimir Luzgin for reposting a text which accused both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union of invading Poland in 1939.

READ: Russia’s Supreme Court rules that the USSR did not invade Poland in 1939, Halya Coynash, Human Rights in Ukraine, September 2, 2016.


Joint victory parade of Wehrmacht and Red Army in Brest at the end of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. In the center Major General Heinz Guderian and Brigadier Semyon Krivoshein.
Joint victory parade of Wehrmacht and Red Army in Brest at the end of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. In the center Major General Heinz Guderian and Brigadier Semyon Krivoshein. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-121-0011A-22 / Gutjahr / CC-BY-SA 3.0

While both VOA and RFE/RL reported on the September 1, 2016 Russian Supreme Court ruling after some delay and criticism from BBG Watch for initially ignoring the court’s verdict, I could not find any VOA or Radio Liberty Russian staff journalist who on either of the two dates, September 17 or September 22, dared to pen his or her own analysis of more than one or two sentences to state without any hesitation that the military actions on the eastern front in 1939 were in fact a joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland. Writing and posting such an analysis would put the author at risk of being accused by the Russian authorities of violating the Russian law. The first anniversary on September 17 was the start of the Soviet invasion of Poland. The second anniversary on September 22, was the staging of the joint Nazi-Soviet victory parade in Brest-Litovsk.

VOA and Radio Liberty staff journalists and stringers could very well be afraid of what could happen to them, their families and their properties in Russia if they violate what now is the new enhanced Russian legal ruling censoring freedom of expression. To its credit, Radio Liberty had a lengthy discussion of the September 1 ruling. The discussion happened late, on September 8 (during the Cold War such a delay in responding to a similar Soviet law would be unthinkable), but at least Radio Liberty managed to organize it. I found it strange, however, that on the actual September anniversaries, neither VOA nor RFE/RL thought it important enough to challenge directly the recent Russian court ruling and the ongoing Kremlin’s propaganda offensive of distorting and denying historical facts.

I know how enterprising journalists who are completely free of fear work. They would not pass up such an opportunity as they had on September 17 and 22 to speak up and to make an important point for the Russian audience. I doubt that many of these VOA and Radio Liberty journalists believe in their hearts that these were not significant historical and current affairs issues worth discussing again at length on at least one of those days, especially right after the controversial Russian Supreme Court’s ruling. Under Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) leadership, both organizations seem to have, however, enough staff, money and resources to produce “click bait” fluff animal videos or videos glorifying the late Uzbek dictator.

This in turn leads me to think that judicial intimidation by the Russian government is working in a subtle but significant way with respect to these two U.S. taxpayer-funded institutions managed by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. Other media, even some in Russia, made a much stronger point of noting at least one of these anniversaries on their respective dates; VOA and Radio Liberty did not as far as I could determine through several online searches. I was able to find only a few sentences posted on September 17 on the Radio Liberty site.

It is also worth noting that neither VOA nor Radio Liberty reported on U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s speech in Latvia last month in which he discussed at length the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. At the same time, VOA Russian Service posted a video which repeated some of the key themes of current Kremlin propaganda on World War II origins and failed to mention the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

Voice of America Russian Service Video

Unlike the period of the Cold War when VOA and Radio Liberty staff was protected from direct exposure to Soviet law and intimidation, many Voice of America and Radio Liberty journalists now either live permanently in Russia or frequently travel to Russia using their Russian passports as Russian citizens or dual citizens. They do this even if most of the time they live and work in the United States, where the Voice of America is based, or in the Czech Republic, where RFE/RL has its main headquarters. RFE/RL still keeps a large news bureau in Moscow and a large network of reporters throughout Russia, which the Putin regime tolerates because it provides the Russian security services a leverage for intimidation and control. Many of VOA and RFE/RL journalists own property or have children and other family members living, working and owning property in Russia. They are wide open to intimidation. While I would not yet advocate closing the RFE/RL Moscow bureau and stopping all BBG journalist travel to Russia, I do think new effective policies and measures are urgently needed to protect VOA and Radio Liberty journalists from fear and intimidation by the Russian secret police and security services of other autocratic and dictatorial regimes. The Broadcasting Board of Governors has ignored this threat for far too long while some members of the BBG oversight board have been doing private business in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and in China. It appears that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is also willing to allow self-censorship of Voice of America programs to get them placed for rebroadcasting on radio and TV stations in countries that practice political or cultural censorship.

Intimidation of journalists by foreign regimes does not have to be direct, although I suspect that some VOA and Radio Liberty managers, editors, staff reporters and stringers have been directly threatened by the Russian FSB secret police. Under Russian law, as Russian citizens they may not be at liberty to disclose such threats without violating other Russian laws aimed to protect the FSB.

The killings of many independent journalists in Russia have already silenced or muted many other Russian reporters still alive who otherwise would more vigorously expose official corruption and facts which the Kremlin wants suppressed. A few of the most brave Russian journalists still do, but Russia’s Supreme Court ruling on these historical anniversaries appears to have been sufficient with respect to many others. Other than practicing self-censorship, how else could one explain that all of the sudden both the Voice of America and Radio Liberty are completely uninterested in discussing the September 17 and September 22 anniversaries on those exact dates this year?

After BBG Watch criticized VOA and Radio Liberty for ignoring the September 1 Russian Supreme Court ruling, on September 9, VOA Russian Service posted a video of Russian-American expert Ariel Cohen discussing the issue. His was an excellent personal analysis, but Dr. Cohen is an independent scholar, does not work as a staff journalist for the Voice of America, and presumably he is not afraid of what could happen to him if he ever traveled to Russia. The joint Voice of America Radio Liberty Russian TV program on September 17, 2016 had as a guest another prominent Russian-American scholar Dr. Leon Aron, who is even a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors oversight board for VOA and RFE/RL, but Dr. Aron was not asked by his VOA host about the September 17 Nazi-Soviet anniversary. He may have assumed that VOA devoted a separate program, report or analysis to the Soviet invasion of Poland.

RFE/RL analyst in Prague Brian Whitmore discussed the September 1 Russian Supreme Court verdict and the 1939 events briefly in his English-language online program on September 6. But my search of the VOA Russian and Radio Liberty Russian websites did not produce any evidence of these historical anniversaries linked to current events being noted or discussed at any significant length on September 17 or September 22 this year.

As reported by another independent American scholar Paul Goble on his own Window on Eurasia blog, seventy-seven years ago this week, Nazi and Soviet forces celebrated their joint defeat of Poland with a joint military parade in Brest-Litovsk.
“This week includes an anniversary the Kremlin didn’t want anyone to mark or even remember: 77 years ago yesterday in Brest, soldiers and officers from Hitler’s Wehrmacht and from Stalin’s Red Army staged a joint victory parade following the occupation and dismemberment of Poland that marked the beginning of World War II in Europe.”

READ: Seventy-Seven Years Ago This Week, Nazi and Soviet Forces Celebrated Their Joint Defeat of Poland, By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia — New Series, September 23, 2016.


Photos: German–Soviet military parade in Brest-Litovsk on September 22, 1939, Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-121-0011A-23 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 and Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-121-0011A-22 / Gutjahr / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Ted Lipien, former acting Voice of America associate director, is one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch.