BBG Watch Commentary

Rather than interviewing U.S. officials about corruption charges leveled against Vladimir Putin, Voice of America posted a report about zebras, VOA’s most popular English news story on Monday, while Radio Liberty still bans a former investigative reporter who wanted to get the Putin story out. BBC showed what needs to be done with its news breaking Putin corruption documentary.

U.S. Treasury Adam Szubin in BBC Panorama

BBC Panorama interviewing Adam Szubin, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.”‘Putin is corrupt’ says US Treasury” | BBC News

“Vladimir Putin has been accused of corruption on a breathtaking scale,” BBC reported in a 30 min. TV documentary in which reporter Richard Bilton met former Kremlin insiders who say they know how Putin’s riches are hidden. A Russian investigative reporter, recently fired by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was hired by BBC to do research for the program. Meanwhile, the most popular Voice of America (VOA) news report online last weekend was about a study showing that zebras’ stripes are not camouflage.

U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and the Voice of America duly reported on the BBC Putin corruption documentary after it was aired, although not at any great length in VOA’s case. Radio Liberty had more on the BBC program in Russian, but RL should be originating such programs, not reporting on them after the fact. Over $100 million of U.S. tax dollars goes to RFE/RL every year; BBG’s entire budget is about $740 million. All this money cannot buy a single in-depth investigative report focused specifically on President Putin’s personal corruption.

What have RFE/RL and VOA done before in terms of investigative research and reporting about widespread accusations of corruption leveled against President Putin?

The answer is almost nothing.

Former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member and former Radio Liberty director S. Enders Wimbush told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee late last year that the agency’s response to Kremlin propaganda has been “feeble.” The BBG oversees both VOA and RFE/RL. BBG officials deny that the response was feeble and point to one new 30 min. daily TV program in Russian.

One former RFE/RL reporter, a young Russian journalist Anastasia Kirilenko who tried to do investigative reporting on President Putin’s riches was fired last year by the former management of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service. Management even tried to prevent Radio Liberty journalists from mentioning her name in any new Russian programs. Radio Liberty’s human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik was also fired last year. An RFE/RL lawyer and a Radio Liberty manager testified against her in a Russian court when she tried to challenge her dismissal. Russian human rights leaders wrote a letter of support in her fight with the former Russian Service management which dismissed her even though she was a target of vicious anti-Semitic attacks online for her reporting for RFE/RL.

Kirilenko who now lives in Paris continues to publish in Western media and in some more independent media outlets in Russia. She also did some research for the BBC Panorama program aired Monday, providing information, fact checking and contacts. Kirilenko has already helped with three BBC Panorama programs dealing with Russia. She had in fact obtained one of the first interviews with Putin’s accuser Russian businessman Maxim Freidzon who was also interviewed for the BBC program.

The Voice of America has never done any lengthy investigative research on corruption by foreign leaders in its entire history. VOA only reported on such corruption. The job of doing investigative research and reporting on corrupt governments was always left to semi-private U.S. funded media outlets like RFE/RL. But other than Kirilenko’s previous groundbreaking work for Radio Liberty, RFE/RL has failed to investigate President Putin for corruption, while VOA with its general news mission combined with the requirement to present and explain U.S. policies failed to interview U.S. officials on this subject.

This may partly explain why President Putin allows RFE/RL to keep a large news bureau in Moscow even after shutting down nearly every news media outlet of any significance critical of his rule and shutting down nearly all civil society NGOs receiving foreign donations.

With neither VOA nor RFE/RL showing much journalistic curiosity about Putin as a corrupt foreign leader, BBC managed to interview Adam Szubin, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Szubin told BBC: “we’ve seen [Putin] enriching his friends, his close allies, and marginalizing those who he doesn’t view as friends, using state assets.” “To me, that is a picture of corruption,” the high-level American official says in a BBC Panorama interview.

Why couldn’t VOA get the same interview from the same U.S. official much earlier?

In one nine-paragraph report, VOA English Newsroom devoted only three short paragraphs to the BBC Putin corruption story and U.S. Treasury official’s charges. The rest of the VOA report was about President Putin calling for the country to improve its anti-corruption measures and Russian government officials dismissing BBC charges. On its website, the VOA report, posted at 1:33 PM Tuesday, shows only five Facebook “Shares” as of 9:15 PM, and only three comments.

Another VOA English Newsroom report about what the U.S. Treasury Department’s Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence told BBC has five paragraphs and shows seven Facebook “Shares.” Comments appear not to be open for this VOA report. VOA Russian Service translated and reposted the same short VOA English news reports. There have been no VOA English nor VOA Russian interviews with the U.S. Treasury official Adam Szubin who monitors government corruption in Russia.

The news that a U.S. official accused President of Russia of personal corruption was broken not by VOA, not by RFE/RL, but by BBC.

But credit should go to VOA Russian Service for interviewing Anastasia Kirilenko a few days earlier about accusations of corruption against President Putin while Radio Liberty’s former Russian Service management banned her and her name from new programs. Whether this ban will be lifted by the new Radio Liberty Russian management remains to be seen. The VOA Russian interview with Kirilenko is showing over 900 Facebook “Shares” and 34 comments.

If RFE/RL still insists on not communicating with Kirilenko because she described her ordeal with RFE/RL Russian Service management in a series of interviews with BBG Watch, they should re-read their mission statement and the mission statement of their oversight agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

“RFE/RL’s mission is to promote democratic values and institutions by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.”

“The BBG’s mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

Should RFE/RL managers be shunning and refusing to communicate with a journalist because she gave an interview to another media outlet? It would be truly shameful and against RFE/RL’s and BBG’s public mission if they did it out of spite.

What is VOA English Newsroom doing while it is not interviewing U.S. officials about accusations of corruption against President Putin?

Most Viewed VOA English News Report Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.46 AM EST

Most Viewed VOA English News Report Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12:46 AM EST. Is this good use of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars?

According to a VOA English Newsroom manager, the most read VOA news report in English was over the last weekend: Study: “Zebras’ Stripes Not Camouflage” | VOA News, January 25. As of 9:15 PM Tuesday, the zebra story shows 1.5 thousand Facebook “Shares” and 18 comments on the VOA website. A VOA manager informed the staff that the zebra story received over 24 thousand views on Monday, but here is the catch, “traffic on the zebra story was almost all from the U.S. and Canada. More than three-quarters came to it from Bing,” according to a VOA Newsroom manager. By law, VOA is not charged with targeting American audiences, so most of this traffic does not count.

The second most viewed VOA English news report on Monday was, according to a VOA Newsroom manager, “Putin Denounces Lenin, Says Stalin Got it Right” | VOA News, January 25. This VOA report shows over 800 Facebook “Shares” and 12 comments. According to a VOA manager, the report received nearly 12 thousand views. But the report itself is again short. It presents Vladimir Putin’s dubious views on history, but does not offer any challenges or alternative interpretation. No background, no analysis, no experts commenting that Stalin’s position on the nationalities question, praised by Putin, cost millions of lives. This VOA news report presenting Putin’s point of view could have been just as well written by his RT propaganda outlet.

VOA English News Most Viewed Reports January 26, 2016

Most viewed VOA English News reports on Monday, January 26, 2016, as reported by a VOA manager. World’s population is over 7.4 billion. Many of these views may come from the United States. By law, VOA programs do not target U.S. audiences even if they can be accessed in the U.S. on the Internet or through other media. VOA is charged with targeting foreign audiences.

As for RFE/RL, it has new acting director of the Russian Service since Monday. He is Andrei Shary, former deputy director. The Broadcasting Board of Governors has new CEO and Director John Lansing since September. Will this make any difference? It still remains to be seen.