DW Homepage Screenshot 1-18-14
DW Homepage Screenshot 1-18-14

British BBC and German Deutsche Welle (DW) offer superb coverage in English of Ukraine’s slide toward a repressive state. Too bad America’s voice abroad, Voice of America (VOA), is not, and has left the field to RT (Russia Today).

A guest analysis by Ted Lipien, a global media analyst and former Voice of America associate director

Deutsche Welle (DW), a German public media outlet serving international audiences, once again has shown high standards of journalism and news analysis in its coverage of one of the most repressive, anti-democratic laws anywhere in the world today. The Ukrainian Parliament passed it on Thursday and President Victor Yanukovych has signed it. Voice of America (VOA) — except for its Ukrainian service and to some degree its Russian service — was largely AWOL (for international readers: “absent without leave”) on this important news story.

It is too bad that Voice of America is in such poor state, and that a fine news organization like DW is not better known in the United States. Both VOA and DW have fewer resources at their disposal than RT, Russia’s international media outlet, formerly called Russia Today, which reported in English on US foreign policy statements on Ukraine, albeit with a subtle anti-American slant, while VOA failed to report them.

Here is a look at how major international media outlets with a focus on foreign audiences covered events in Ukraine and reactions to them this week.

RT – A Media Giant With A Mission for Putin

RT (Russia Today) was unusually — but perhaps predictably — silent most of this week on Ukraine’s latest slide toward a repressive state. Russia may have not wanted to call world’s attention to its work in Ukraine that makes President Putin look something less than a heroic protector of young children. As an aside, a recent headline on the VOA English website for a Reuters news report focused on President Putin’s statement that gays are welcome in Russia for the Winter Olympics and will face no discrimination, while BBC and many other Western media outlets rightly chose to highlight his perverse warning that gays should stay away from children.

On Jan. 19 (Moscow time), RT finally posted on its English website a new news report on Ukraine, focusing on Western criticism of the undemocratic legislation. “West blasts Ukraine’s new ‘anti-democratic’ laws,” RT, Jan. 19, 2014. By RT standards, it is a fairly objective news account, but its tone betrays a subtle attempt to implant in readers’ minds an idea that the West is interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, while RT keeps silent about any Russian interference, which is both massive and brutal. Many RT news reports are superficially objective in this manner, which helps RT attract an audience in the West. This one even quotes U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks on Ukraine, which VOA English website managers failed to notice, or if they did notice, decided not to report. RT did it its way.

But knowing RT, it will be back soon with commentary and more news reports accusing the US and the EU of interference in Ukraine while overlooking the fact that President Putin is unashamed in forcing this major European country into his new empire of autocratic vassals. Western media should be prepared to counter these Kremlin claims with solid news reporting and analysis. With a few exceptions, Western media, and especially VOA, are not doing a good job.

RFI Coverage Weak in English

With the exception of BBC and Deutsche Welle, Western news coverage in English focusing on foreign audiences — RT’s main advantage — has not been not very strong. Radio France Internationale (RFI) provided good reporting and analysis on Ukraine this week in French and Russian, but, unfortunately, nothing in English.

BBC – Always Excellent News and Analysis

BBC has posted on its English website five different reports on Ukraine on January 17 and January 18. One of them, “Ukraine’s president signs anti-protest bill into law,” BBC, Jan. 17, mentioned Secretary Kerry’s comments, which VOA English website did not report, but as in the case of DW, BBC news also focused on Ukrainian and other European reactions.

BBC also provided excellent analysis in this report, “Ukrainian media see new laws as threat to democracy,” BBC, Jan. 17, 2014. Nothing like this appeared anywhere on VOA English news website this week.

RFE/RL – Excellent Surrogate Reporting and Analysis

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is in a somewhat different category than the other media outlets. It is a surrogate media outlet, in which foreign journalists provide local news and commentary as if they were working in their own countries, many of which lack free media. Like VOA, RFE/RL is also funded by US taxpayers and is under the oversight of the Broadcasting Broad of Governors (BBG) in Washington, DC. Well managed after recent BBG-initiated reforms, RFE/RL offered excellent news coverage of this week’s events in Ukraine in Ukrainian, Russian and other foreign languages. RFE/RL also provides limited online news service in English and has posted on its website this week several excellent English language news reports and news analyses on Ukraine.

Even though RFE/RL is based in Prague, Czech Republic, and at local news bureaus abroad, it offered far better reporting on US reactions to events in Kyiv than VOA English news service based in Washington. It even reported briefly on Secretary Kerry’s statement on Ukraine.

But RFE/RL’s English language news reporting on US foreign policy is not nearly as extensive as VOA would be expected to provide and should provide worldwide. US news reporting is not written into RFE/RL’s mission statement and its target audience does not include many countries that might be interested in US news presented from an American, rather than foreign perspective. Audience expectations are also different for RFE/RL than they are for VOA, which is seen as the natural and expected provider of US news, including news from official US sources.

Interestingly, however, since both VOA and RFE/RL report to BBG, VOA could have used RFE/RL English language news reports on Ukraine-related news events in Washington, even as brief and general as they were. VOA did not even do that much or that little.

An example of solid RFE/RL news analysis on events in Ukraine this week is “Does ‘Black Thursday’ Mark End Of Ukraine’s Democratic Decade?” by Daisy Sindelar, RFE/RL, Jan. 17, 2014.

Some US reactions were reported briefly by RFE/RL in “Ukraine’s Harsh New Antiprotest Law Draws International Condemnation, RFE/RL,” Jan. 17, 2014.

This report was prepared in English by the RFE/RL Ukrainian service — something VOA management could have asked its Ukrainian service to do, but apparently did not. Even if it did ask, there is no way understaffed and under-resourced could have provided additional reporting in English.

VOA – Major Failures Except for Its Ukrainian Service And A Few Others

It is indeed unfortunate that US taxpayer-funded Voice of America — with the noted earlier exception of its Ukrainian service and perhaps a few other language services — completely mishandled this major news story. For its worldwide audiences, including many countries without free media such as Iran, China and Tibet, VOA only managed to post online two rather perfunctory Reuters reports in English, without updating them or offering any of its own original English language news reporting on Ukraine for the last few days — in-depth reports on US reactions that could have been translated into other languages.

In a glaring display of indifference to news, VOA English website even failed to report Friday on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s on camera statement on Ukraine, as it had ignored  an earlier State Department statement on Thursday and pointed comments from U.S. senators.

While failing to report news, VOA English website also provided no analysis of this week’s events in Ukraine, even though Voice of America’s Ukrainian Service has some of the best journalists working for it, including Myroslava Gongadze, a TV news program host. Her late husband, Georgiy Gongadze, an investigative journalist, was brutally murdered in Ukraine in 2000.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published in 2009, Ms. Gongadze warned that those longing for strong-armed rule are a real threat to democracy in Ukraine. She was right. VOA should have asked her to comment this week for its English-speaking worldwide online audience on recent news developments in Ukraine. Some of VOA’s news analyses in English dealing with Ukraine are weeks old and partly outdated, and yet they are still featured prominently on the website.

Outstanding European News Analysis from DW

Deutsche Welle did not pay any particular attention to American responses, but it extensively covered European reactions to events in Ukraine this week and also offered sophisticated news analysis.

Two such recent excellent Deutsche Welle op-eds stand out.

The first DW analysis is by Bernd Johann who heads Deutsche Welle’s Ukrainian department, “Opinion: Ukraine declares Europe its enemy,” DW, Jan. 17, 2014. Herr Johann wrote that Ukraine’s new laws to prevent protests target not just opposition activists, journalists and European-minded organizations. He thinks “the laws level a shot directly at the EU.” He describes Ukraine being “Putinized” and and the door facing West being locked.

The second DW opinion article on Ukraine worth noting is an interview with Oleksandr Sushko, the Ukrainian coordinator for EU cooperation on civic rights, “Ukraine is becoming ‘a totalitarian state’, by Eugen Theise and Markian Ostaptschuk, DW, Jan. 17, 2014. Mr. Sushko told DW that the legal framework for Ukraine becoming a police state has now been put in place.

Both of these opinion pieces are featured prominently today (Jan. 18) on DW’s English language homepage (there is nothing on Ukraine of VOA’s English homepage today, while VOA “Europe News” page shows two outdated Reuters reports).

Deutsche Welle provided not only timely commentary in English, but also timely TV news reports, as in this one from Ukraine posted online on January 17.

Kiev protestors buck anti-demo law,” DW, Jan. 17, 2014.

Earlier, on January 10, Deutsche Welle posted in English an interview with the Ukrainian opposition journalist Tetyana Chornovol who was severely beaten up by assailants on December 25. She told DW that they wanted to kill her and that she has more damaging material on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Chornovol: ‘I’m a person fighting Yanukovych’” DW, Jan. 10, 2014.

Before she was attacked and beaten up, Chornovol made a video about her political work for the Deutsche Welle’s Power to the People project.

As another aside, DW homepage today (Jan. 18) prominently shows seven different reports related in some way to President Obama’s Friday NSA spying reform speech. VOA homepage today shows only two such reports without any images. DW clearly shows far more interest in President Obama’s speech than VOA, and rightly so.

Ukraine Is Not Just A European Issue – America Is Also Paying Attention – VOA Fails to Notice

Ukraine’s slide toward political repression is not an issue that interests only Europe and the European Union, and therefore VOA and BBG could safely assume it is enough if BBC and DW report on it, and VOA could focus on something else.

Not just Ukrainian Americans, but Americans in general, are paying close attention to recent events in Ukraine as evidenced by statements from Secretary Kerry and other State Department officials, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the committee’s ranking member Senator Robert Corker (R-TN), Freedom House president David Kramer, and others. American celebrities, such as actor George Clooney and musician Quincy Jones, recorded special video messages for pro-Europe demonstrators in Kyiv. These videos were also ignored on most VOA news websites.

In the U.S. Senate, Senators Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have just introduced the bipartisan Global Human Rights Accountability Act, which would punish human rights violators in all countries. In describing the proposed legislation, which is modeled after, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act for Russia, Senator Cardin specifically mentioned Ukrainian government leaders who might be affected by it if they continue to engage in corruption and human rights abuses.

Cosponsors of the Global Human Rights Accountability Act (S. 1933) include U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Carl Levin (D-MI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Ed Markey (D-MA). The full text of the bill, which needs to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President to become law, can be found here. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) released their own statement on the passage of anti-protest laws by the Ukrainian parliament controlled by President Yanukovych.

There is no doubt that on Ukraine, both Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress are solidly united. It is astounding that VOA would not report on this in English and in many other languages as freedom in Ukraine received another severe blow this week and pro-democracy activists in Ukraine and in many other countries are waiting for the United States to show global leadership. President Obama is already seen abroad as weak on pro-human rights public diplomacy, and VOA’s lack of reporting is not helpful to the administration and the US in general.

While Voice of America, with the exception of VOA Ukrainian and Russian services, ignored all of these Obama administration and congressional statements, as well as the proposed foreign policy-related American legislation, mainstream US media did not, but mainstream US media — with the possible exception of CNN — does not much impact abroad.

A news article on Friday by Bill Englund, a Pulitzer Prize winner Washington Post correspondent in Moscow: “Harsh anti-protest laws in Ukraine spur anger,” includes reporting on various U.S. reactions to recent events in Ukraine that went unreported this week on the Voice of America English news website.

Americans may not be as focused on Ukraine as Germany and the rest of Europe are, but they are not indifferent as someone looking at the Voice of America English website might conclude. News reporting by BBC and Deutsche Welle, while excellent, is not enough. These European media outlets may make short references to official U.S. statements from time to time, but they do not concentrate on them. For obvious reasons, they focus on European reactions.

Both Management and Resource Problem at VOA

VOA English website did not offer any original reporting on Ukraine on Thursday, Friday, and most of the day Saturday. Even today (Saturday) it shows one completely outdated Reuters report which says that President Yanukovych still has to sign the controversial legislation and another Reuters report which focuses on government criticism of Western objections to repressive actions.

Coverage by VOA language services other than the Ukrainian service has been also very spotty. VOA Russian service reported on some US reactions to events in Ukraine, but was late or never reported on others. Most other VOA language services might have used outdated Reuters reports, if they reported at all on the unprecedented legal attempt on Thursday to turn a major European country into a police state.

A familiar argument given by VOA executives to Congress and members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which have oversight responsibilities, is that inadequate coverage is a “resource issue.”

That is largely true as far as VOA language services are concerned. But when it comes to their own bureaucracy and the type of news coverage which VOA executives favor, there appears to be no shortage of resources. While not producing a single original news report in English on historic developments Ukraine in the last few days, VOA’s management found enough money to post five news reports on the British royal baby christening last October and the incredible number of 27 separate news reports (dozens more in translations) on the British royal wedding in 2011. BBG members have noticed the problem, as seen in sharp questioning of VOA director by one of them, but while BBG initiated some management reforms at other parts of the organization, they did not get so far to reforming VOA operations.

It must be pointed out that the vast majority of outstanding VOA journalists are adamantly opposed to VOA management’s programming policy, but their voices have been ignored. Employee morale at VOA is reported to be dismally low as measured by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), a US federal agency.

RT – A Winner

As good as they are, BBC and Deutsche Welle are not America’s voices to the world. Their excellent news coverage in English on Ukraine is not a sufficient counterbalance to RT’s (Russia Today) media outreach in English and in other languages as far as presenting US official foreign policy positions and other American perspectives is concerned.

Fortunately, VOA Ukrainian service is still providing such perspectives, but only to a part of the potential audience in Ukraine (many Ukrainians speak Russian, especially in eastern Ukraine), and even this VOA service, as well as VOA Russian service, operate with woefully insufficient resources and are not always able to post all the news stories and interviews as quickly as they would like.

At least as far as Ukraine only is concerned, the news for the US and the BBG is not all bad, however, because RFE/RL Ukrainian and Russian services are doing an excellent job, and so is VOA Ukrainian service, especially with its television news broadcast, which as one of VOA program managers I had helped to launch during the earlier Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

As for VOA English language news coverage of Ukraine, and coverage in other languages are concerned — the global information field  has been abandoned to other countries, many of them not at all friendly to US interests.  BBC, DW, and to some degree RFI (Radio France Internationale) are still in the game, but they are not enough and they are not there to bring America’s story to the world. RT gets hundreds and thousands of Facebook “Likes” for its reports in English on Ukraine (as does BBC). Reuters reports on VOA’s English website about Ukraine this week got fewer than 10.

The winners are, at least for now, President Putin and RT (Russia Today).

The biggest losers are: the United States, managers in charge of Voice of America, VOA English speaking and many foreign language speaking audiences worldwide, and also VOA journalists, who by all accounts are not given adequate resources and are prevented by the management from doing their professional job.

VOA English 'Europe News' Screenshot 1-18-14 1PM ET
VOA English ‘Europe News’ Screenshot 1-18-14 1PM ET