BBG Watch Commentary.
U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) still broadcasts uncensored radio programs in local languages to the largely Muslim North Caucasus region in the Russian Federation, the reported home of the Boston bombing suspects. But if U.S. government bureaucrats and the Obama Administration had their way, these broadcasts, which include uncensored news about terrorism, would have been silent by now.
And even though radio broadcasts in Avar, Chechen and Circassian barely survived, RFE/RL is still short of dozens of experienced Russian-speaking reporters whose programs were once heard in the region. These reporters were fired last year by the former management of the station and have not yet returned to work. Russian is widely spoken in North Caucasus, which Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty describes as “one of the most violent and dangerous regions in the world, where media freedom and journalists remain under severe threat.”
Bureaucratic proposals to cut broadcasts to dangerous and strategically important areas of the world apparently prompted former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare shortly before leaving her office at the State Department that U.S. international broadcasting was largely “defunct.” She herself was an ex officio member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of these broadcasts, but like most other part-time members of the nine-person (now only five with four vacant positions) bipartisan BBG board, she was also extremely frustrated with the agency’s bureaucracy centered in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) in Washington, DC.
The FY 2013 Broadcasting Board of Governors budget request prepared by former RFE/RL officials and their colleagues at the International Broadcasting Bureau called for ending broadcasting in Avar, Chechen and Circassian, some of the languages of the North Caucasus region from were the two Boston bombings suspects reportedly came from.
These cuts were not implemented because the FY 2013 budget did not pass in Congress. Human rights and media freedom NGOs vigorously opposed these cuts, as did many members of Congress who criticized them as completely misguided. But dozens of Russian-speaking Radio Liberty reporters were fired last year despite President Putin’s increasing authoritarianism. Their firing triggered protests from anti-Putin Russian politicians and human rights leaders.
While the budget is submitted by the administration, eliminating RFE/RL radio programs to the largely Muslim areas of the Russian Federation (also Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, in addition to North Caucuses was the idea of the former RFE/RL management team, some of whose members have subsequently resigned, and senior IBB officials who are still working for BBG in Washington but have recently fallen out of favor after their mistakes were exposed.[aside]Fast Facts (for more see LINK to RFE/RL website)
RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service reports the news in one of the most violent and dangerous regions in the world, where media freedom and journalists remain under severe threat.
Languages: Avar, Chechen, Circassian
Distribution: Radio (SW, satellite)
Coverage: Two hours daily
Staff: 9 (Prague), 15 stringers
Freedom House Freedom of the Press Index, 2012: Not Free (172nd/197)
Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, 2012: 142nd/179
Media outlets in the North Caucasus face the same limitations as those elsewhere in Russia, with the additional hazard of being located in one of the most violent and dangerous regions in the world. Assassinations and bombings by both Islamist rebels and Russian security forces are common, and anyone viewed as a potential threat can be imprisoned.
RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service is the only international broadcaster to provide objective news and analysis to the North Caucasus in Chechen, Circassian and Avar.
In February 2011, North Caucasus Service correspondents joined their colleagues from the Russian, Azerbaijani and Georgian Services in producing a Russian-language discussion program, ‘Free Talk,’ a news and discussion program that attempts to bridge the language gap in the fragmented region. “Free Talk” airs weekly on the Georgian public broadcasting network PIK (First Caucasus News).
North Caucasus Service’s reporting on Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov has been widely cited in major international media.[/aside]
In the FY 2013 BBG Congressional Budget Request, the same IBB officials also proposed cutting Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts to Tibet and eliminating VOA radio, television and Internet content in Cantonese to China.
Many members of Congress were outraged by these proposals and managed to block the proposed cuts to Tibet and China, but Radio Liberty Russian journalists were fired last September and more broadcasting cuts were announced just last week, including elimination of Voice of America radio to Iran.
Meanwhile, presidentially appointed board members in charge of U.S. international broadcasting began to have serious doubts about the competence of their senior staff. One BBG member, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, openly criticized RFE/RL and IBB officials and demanded management changes. Himself a Republican, he is supported by two Democratic members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan. They have joined forces in a bipartisan effort to challenge the bureaucracy and to bring it under control.
After the former RFE/RL management team fired dozens of experienced Radio Liberty journalists in Russia just as President Putin intensified his crackdown on independent, Ashe, McCue and Meehan recruited Kevin Klose, a distinguished journalist and media executive, as new RFE/RL acting president and told him to restore various programs and positions previously eliminated. BBG members who supported the former RFE/RL management team and IBB senior staffers have either resigned or stopped attending BBG board meetings.
This allowed BBG members critical of programming cuts to Tibet, China and Muslim parts of the Russian Federation to initiate partial reforms designed to shake up IBB management. Sources tell BBG Watch that these reforms are being strongly resisted by senior IBB staffers.
But at least thanks to protests from media freedom NGOs, such as the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) and intervention from members of Congress and activist BBG members, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty still broadcasts radio programs to North Caucasus, from where the Boston bombings suspects reportedly came from. RFE/RL’s new acting president Kevin Klose is reportedly working on returning fired Radio Liberty journalists to their previous jobs.
Still, much more remains to be done at the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Dozens of Russian-speaking Radio Liberty journalists who were fired by the former RFE/RL management team have not yet started broadcasting to Russia and the Caucasus region. International Broadcasting Bureau senior bureaucrats who had proposed cutting radio broadcasts to North Caucasus, including Chechnya, are still at their old jobs. They are now recommending cutting Voice of America radio broadcasts to Iran and reducing broadcasts to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Highly unpopular with journalists and other BBG employees, these executives are being protected by IBB Director Richard Lobo, who was appointed by President Obama. He has not done much except approving high bonuses for his senior staff despite them being rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee surveys as being some of the worst managers in the entire federal government. The same surveys show that BBG employees have the lowest morale among federal agencies.
There may, however, be some hope on the horizon. The administration has proposed eliminating IBB Director’s position and replacing it with a CEO of U.S. international broadcasting who would report directly to the BBG board. Meanwhile, BBG’s Interim Presiding Governor Michael Lynton has not been participating in BBG board and committee meetings since January. Due to his absence, the BBG board does not have a quorum and cannot deal with many urgent issues. Two of President’s Obama new appointees to serve on the BBG board, Jeff Shell to become BBG chairman and Matt Armstrong, are waiting to be confirmed by the Senate. Shell has been already waiting for many months, while Armstrong’s nomination has just been announced.
All of this means that despite the best efforts by Governors Ashe, McCue and Meehan and support from the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, who represents Secretary Kerry at BBG meetings, U.S. international broadcasting needs farm more attention from both the White House and the U.S. Congress. It also needs more funding as it cannot compete with outlets like Al Jazeera.
U.S. international broadcasting is still the most cost efficient and most effective U.S. national security weapon and public diplomacy tool. But it can serve U.S. national security interests even better with the right management in place. To move forward the process of reform, all failed bureaucrats need to be removed. The Congress should investigate why dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia were fired and radio programs to Chechnya and other Muslim areas of North Caucasus were nearly eliminated. The tragedy of the Boston terrorist bombings should be a wake up call for the administration and the Congress that U.S. broadcasting to the Russian Federation, including Chechnya and other parts of North Caucasus, cannot be ignored and left in the hands of incompetent bureaucrats.
BBG Watch is republishing a BBG press release on North Caucasus experts at the BBG and portions of the BBG’s FY 2013 Congressional Budget Request. Fortunately, some of the cuts in the budget request were not implemented, but others were.
If government bureaucrats had their way, some of the experts on North Caucasus may have lost their jobs and many programs to the region would have been eliminated.
BBG Press Release
For insight into this unfolding story, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America offer interviews with expert journalists who specialize in the North Caucasus region.
Aslan Doukaev is the director of the North Caucasus Service for RFE/RL, one of the most violent and dangerous regions in the world where media freedom and journalists remain under severe threat. An ethnic Chechen, Doukaev survived the siege of Grozny during the first Chechen war in 1994, but lost many members of his family.
Tel: +420-221-122-563 (Note: Six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time)
Claire Bigg, who authored this profile of Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, is a senior correspondent with RFE/RL focusing on countries of the former Soviet Union with an emphasis on Russia. A fluent Russian speaker who lived in Russia for seven years, Bigg has reported for numerous international publications including AFP, Reuters, The Guardian, and Le Monde. She reported extensively on the 2004 Beslan massacre, as well as the exhumation of mass graves in Chechnya, and lawyers under attack in the North Caucasus.
Tel: +420-221-123-648 (Note: Six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time)
Robert Coalson has been with RFE/RL since 2002, covering political, economic, and social stories from throughout the broadcast regions, particularly Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. He worked as a reporter and editor for many years in Russia with English language media outlets, including The Moscow Times and The St. Petersburg Times. He is fluent in Russian and holds a master’s degree in Russian literature and history from Cornell University.
Tel: +420-223-650 (Note: Six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time)
Fatima Tlisova is a leading US-based expert on the region who works for Voice of America’s Russian service in Washington, DC, where she covers the North Caucasus and topics including Islamic radicalism, corruption, and racism. She also writes the blog “Pressa pod pressom” (“Press Under Pressure”) about press freedom in Russia. She lived in Watertown, MA from 2007 to 2010 while on a fellowship at Harvard University. Before coming to the United States, Tlisova had been editor-in-chief of the REGNUM News Agency in the North Caucasus, reported from the region for the Associated Press, and served as a special correspondent for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta and a reporter for RFE/RL.
BOOKERS AND PRODUCERS — To schedule an interview with Fatima Tlisova, contact Kyle King at email@example.com or +1-202-203-4959. For interviews with any of RFE/RL’s experts, contact Karisue Wyson in Washington (firstname.lastname@example.org; +1-202-457-6917), or Emily Thompson in Prague (email@example.com; +420-602-279-556 Note: Six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time) .
Program Reductions: RFE/RL [–$9.8 M]
Revamp Broadcasting to the Russian Federation [–$3.249 M]
Communicating with audiences across the Russian Federation is a perennial BBG priority given Russia’s role in the world as well as its limits on free press and free expression. Russia’s denial of RFE/RL access to local FM licenses and affiliations with local stations has in recent years pushed RFE/RL toward new media and alternative delivery platforms in the Russian Federation. This strategy has yielded significant growth in online audiences, inspiring new approaches to packaging and delivering unique and compelling content to RFE/RL’s niche audiences. Building on its success, RFE/RL will engage further in its robust digital migration efforts, adopting an enhanced web and mobile presence-only in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and ending radio broadcasts. RFE/RL will end broadcasting in Avar, Chechen and Circassian but will offer targeted Russian-language web and mobile content to the North Caucasus. Efficiency measures will also allow some reductions in Russian service staff that will not derail the digital strategy or significantly diminish the remaining radio service. A total of 19 positions will be reduced in the Russian, North Caucasus, and Tatar-Bashkir Services.
Discontinue Broadcasting in Cantonese [–$.964 M]
VOA Cantonese products continue to have a negligible impact in the crowded South China media market. Audiences are fractional, even for non-news programming. The budget request eliminates VOA broadcasting in Cantonese. As Mandarin and Cantonese are the same written language, VOA will reach the Chinese population targeted by Cantonese on its website. RFA will continue Cantonese broadcasts. This consolidation would also reduce staffing by 7 positions.
Reduce Duplication with RFA in Asia [–$2.167 M]
The budget request aims to reduce duplication in BBG radio broadcasts to Asia by minimizing VOA’s radio output and re-focusing VOA on television, which is rapidly becoming the medium of choice in Asia. The budget request reduces Burmese staffing, eliminates VOA Lao service SW transmissions, and minimizes its Vietnamese radio broadcasts. VOA would retain some Washington-based staff in the Lao and Vietnamese services to provide a ―Washington Bureau‖ as well as to maintain websites. The budget also eliminates VOA Tibetan language radio, while increasing airtime and resources for VOA’s popular Tibetan satellite television broadcast. RFA would pick up the best transmission hours for Tibetan radio and continue its extensive Tibetan radio broadcasts. This proposal would reduce staffing by one Burmese position, four positions in Lao, 10 positions in Vietnamese, and seven positions in Tibetan.