BBG Watch Commentary
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has posted a press release with a headline announcing that the Russian government’s action to block access to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) news website Krym.Realii (Crimea.Realities) “won’t stop website.” The BBG press release does not not explain how the website will reach the audience in Russia-occupied Crimea if the Russian authorities continue to block it.
The BBG federal agency has been moving for some time with limited results from shortwave and medium wave radio broadcasting and direct-to-home satellite television toward multimedia digital output. In 2008, a few days before the Russian military invasion of Georgia, one of the previous BBG boards cut all Voice of America (VOA) radio and live satellite TV broadcasts to Russia and to Russian speakers in former Soviet republics. After the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, RFE/EL and VOA introduced with some delay a joint Russian-language TV news program Current Times. According to critics, this BBG response to Russian aggression has been inadequate. Within weeks of the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, BBG executives commissioned a highly questionable public opinion poll in Crimea at U.S. government’s expense without seeking approval of the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. BBG officials then announced that the Crimeans are overwhelmingly happy with the annexation and Moscow’s rule in Crimea.
Critics say that money saved from eliminating live radio and TV programs has been largely wasted on the BBG, VOA, and RFE/RL bureaucracy whose executives and staffers frequently travel back and forth between Washington and Prague, Czech Republic. RFE/RL has its headquarters in Prague. Krym.Realii and Current Time websites show relatively little online traffic compared to such independent Russian news websites as MEDUZA or Rain TV. These RFE/RL and VOA sites have been also leagues behind Russian state media in online traffic even when Krym.Realii was not blocked by the Russian government. Critics attribute low site traffic numbers to poor leadership, mixing of VOA and RFE/RL brands in Current Time, and poor quality of some of the content. The Russian ban is likely to make web traffic statistics even worse for Krym.Realii.
Current Time recently posted a video of a Cuban in Havana saying that the Cubans consider President Putin a friend. VOA, which supplied the video, did not attempt to test this assertion in the same program by talking to other Cubans, including political dissidents, about Russia’s influence in Cuba and links between Russian and Cuban security services. President Putin is a former KGB officer. The program did show Cuban human rights activists being arrested, but Current Time audiences were not able to assess watching the program the extent of President Putin’s popularity in Cuba or Russia’s current links with the repressive Castro regime.
Since September 2015, the BBG has new CEO John Lansing. He has introduced some personnel and management reforms.
As bad as this censorship by the Russian government is, the banning of the RFE/RL Crimea website may be a sign that RFE/RL is now viewed as a threat to Vladimir Putin and is having more impact than before, or it could be a sign of panic on the part of the Kremlin propagandists and Russian security services.
Without major structural reforms through legislation, the Broadcating Board of Governors is unlikely to meet the challenge of website bans by hostile foreign governments. The BBG has allowed its bureaucracy to grow and to report that the Crimeans and the Cubans love President Putin. The same bureaucrats have seriously undermined the BBG’s direct radio and satellite TV transmissions. Internal reforms will not fix this broken agency. In the face of the Russian challenge, the BBG needs a major structural overhaul and a lot of adult supervision.
No single individual, no matter how good, can save the agency which lacks institutional definition and protection of its various missions, as well as a cadre of well-chosen experts in various areas, including foreign policy and public diplomacy, which the BBG now lacks to great detriment of national interest and security.
BBG Press Release
(WASHINGTON–May 12, 2016) Volodymyr Prytula, the chief of RFE/RL’s news website Krym.Realii (Crimea.Realities), says that neither the website’s editors nor RFE/RL was warned of claims or allegations against the site before Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor began to block access to it last night. Denial of access to the website has been reported in many cities in Russia and Russia-annexed Crimea.
“This is an aggressive act that uses the outrageous pretext of extremism to censor RFE/RL and prevent audiences in Russia and Crimea from learning the truth about the annexation,” RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic said in a statement on May 12. “We condemn it as an attack on RFE/RL’s operations and the public’s fundamental right to freely access information,” he added.
Crimea’s Moscow-appointed, de facto Prosecutor-General Natalia Poklonskaya posted a statement on May 12 saying that Russia’s Internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, had launched measures to block and shut down the site. Her office had earlier issued a call for the website’s closure on April 19, claiming it seeks to “discredit the Russian Federation, incites inter-ethnic hatred and promotes extremism.” A contributor to the website was arrested that day, drawing a sharp rebuke from U.S. Embassy in Kyiv spokesman Jonathan Lalley, who called it an example “of the Russian government’s growing crackdown on independent voices in Russia and Russia-occupied Crimea.”
According to Roskomnadzor’s website, decisions to block access to Krym.Realii were adopted in September 2015 in connection with Russia’s law on extremism; it is unclear why these decisions are being implemented now.
Krym.Realii is one of the last remaining sources for independent reporting about Russia-annexed Crimea. It is published in Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar languages, and has logged an average of 2.2 million visits monthly to its website over the past 12-month period.
RFE/RL is a private, independent international news organization whose programs — radio, Internet, television, and mobile — reach influential audiences in 23 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
Media inquiries in the U.S. can be made to Martins Zvaners in Washington at email@example.com or +1.202.457.6948. In Europe, contact Joanna Levison in Prague at firstname.lastname@example.org or +420.221.122.080.