BBG Watch Commentary
At a recent Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) panel, no one in Washington picked up on a warning from Radio Liberty Russian Service Director Irina Lagunina that a new Russian law, which will go into effect next month, may make expansion of online news reporting by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) to Russia impossible.
No one had asked any questions about her poignant comment, even though Ms. Lagunina warned that journalists will be faced with prison terms of up to five years if charged with promoting “separatism.”
Radio Liberty news reporting about Crimea, which is now controlled by Russia, or any other topic dealing with ethnic minorities, could be covered by this law.
“I want to point out that for the future we will have a huge challenge because of the new Russian law,” Ms. Lagunina warned.
While Ms. Lagunina did not say this directly, Radio Liberty journalists working in Russia, or even those working in Prague or elsewhere but who are Russian citizens and may wish to go back to Russia at some point, will either have to resign, practice self-censorship, or risk being charged with a crime for reporting news accurately and objectively. It will be up to the Russian authorities to determine what constitutes a violation of this law. In fact, any journalist working in Russia will be at risk of going to prison for reporting on issues dealing with anti-Kremlin protests and other similar activities.
Radio Liberty has a large bureau in Moscow and employs a large number of journalists and stringers in Russia. The same law will apply to a smaller number of Voice of America (VOA) correspondents and stringers also working in Russia.
In responding to a question about new online news reporting projects, including online TV and video, Irina Lagunina pointed out that any investment made to expand online news reporting and social media activities in Russia can be stopped by this new Russian law. Although she did not say it directly, her warning implied that the Russian authorities can block Radio Liberty website and social media pages. VOA website and social pages can also be blocked.
Surprisingly, this warning was not picked up by any other participant in the discussion in Washington. IBB and VOA executives in Washington have been ignoring bad news coming out of Russia for years because it interfered with their easy program placement and “Washington Bureau” strategy. Critics point out that news reporting at VOA has been greatly reduced, with emphasis placed on producing entertaining feature reports, such as a video for Pakistan showing a blood-thirsty zombie Uncle Sam character attacking a Pakistani. VOA has also produced dozens of reports on the British royal family.
For some VOA and IBB executives, the Ukraine crisis was an unexpected shock that they tried to ignore for as long as they could and failed to respond to it for quite some time. Eventually, BBG members themselves put pressure on VOA executives to do something about Ukraine. The IBB interim management team was more responsive, but it lacks experience in surge media outreach.
The surge was discussed during the open BBG Board meeting on Friday. Ms. Lagunina with several of her colleagues from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty took part in the panel discussion by video from Prague, Czech Republic. That’s where RFE/RL has its headquarters and where some members of the Russian Service work, while many others continue work in Russia.
Earlier in the discussion, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell listed graphic examples of severe threats made to safety and life of Radio Liberty journalists covering news in Russia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
IRINA LAGUNINA, RADIO LIBERTY RUSSIAN SERVICE DIRECTOR: “This new Russian law actually punishes up to five years of imprisonment those who call for, spread ideas of separatism, which covers Crimea right now. So what I’m saying right now, if I had money to develop [online news reporting and social media] can be cut by the new restrictive legislation in Russia and probably this new law will demand additional new effort from us.”
There has been strong bureaucratic resistance in Washington, DC to entertain any other program delivery method to Russia, except Internet and social media.
While the BBG protested against the Russian authorities non-renewal of a Voice of America Russian Service radio program rebroadcasting on a leased AM (medium wave 810kHz) transmitter in Moscow, the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives had already once recommended and implemented silencing of the same program. In happened in July 2008, just days before the Russian military invasion and occupation of parts of the territory of the Republic of Georgia. For many months afterwards, IBB executives and most former BBG members strongly resisted calls for resuming VOA Russian news broadcasts. They finally submitted to pressure from one former BBG member, members of Congress, and other critics and reluctantly restored VOA Russian radio programs, but only for 30 min. Monday through Friday (before that it was several hours daily).
At the same time, IBB strategic planners and executives resisted any calls for starting AM Radio Liberty broadcasts to European Russia from an available medium wave transmitter in Lithuania, an ally of the United States. They still continue to ignore offers from Lithuania to use this AM transmitter, which would cover most of European Russia and Ukraine during evening and night hours and would allow for reception on car radios.
Some of the same IBB executives and strategic planners were responsible for proposing the 2008 elimination of not just VOA radio programs to Russia, but also a VOA Russian satellite television news program. Some of them are now advising RFE/RL and VOA on a new strategy. Ironically, one of them suggested more online television and possibly starting up a satellite television program to Russia.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an inspection of BBG activities in Russia and made recommendations which IBB has so far failed to implement.
“Recommendation 1: The Broadcasting Board of Governors should implement a comprehensive strategy for U.S. international broadcasting to Russia that includes all Broadcasting Board of Governors entities operating in or broadcasting to Russia. (Action: BBG)”
The key OIG findings relate to the very unpredictable and risky digital media environment in Russia:
Success for the VOA Russian Service and the RFE/RL Russian Service will depend on their ability to capitalize on the growth of new media in Russia, but the environment is fraught with challenges. As described above, the online market is highly competitive and hostile to international and independent broadcasters. The political environment in Russia is such that those fledgling partnerships, which both entities have, remain vulnerable and subject to government pressure and legal restrictions. There is also the possibility that the government may seek greater control over the Internet, especially troubling in light of both outlets’ shifts to all digital platforms. While the VOA Russian Service plans to eventually reintroduce itself to television in Russia through its Washington Bureau strategy, the contingency plan for the possibility of the Russian Government shutting down the digital platform is not known by either broadcasting entity staff. As BBG considers the future of U.S. international broadcasting to Russia and as IBB develops techniques to respond to disruptions of digital delivery platforms, it would be useful to communicate a contingency plan to staff.
Informal Recommendation 1: The Broadcasting Board of Governors should direct the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to communicate the contingency plan for the possible disruption of broadcasting on the digital platform to their respective staff.
See: Inspection of U.S. International Broadcasting to Russia, OIG, September 2013.
Even after Russia annexed Crimea, some top level Voice of America executives were still gong-ho on the “Washington Bureau television strategy for Russia” and expressed no qualms about self-censorship that such a strategy clearly requires. The Washington Bureau television strategy can be highly effective if there is no self-censorship or any kind of censorship or restrictions on the receiving side, but IBB strategic planners have been pushing this strategy with abandon for years for countries like Russia, China, and Indonesia — all of which place formal and informal restrictions on what kind of foreign programming can be allowed. Everyone knows that this strategy for such countries is based on self-censorship. There is nothing wrong with the “Washingon Bureau” approach if it is not subject to censorship and self-censorship. In such cases, it is highly desirable. There is also nothing wrong with an element of soft programming as long as the entire program delivery strategy or most of it is not based on this approach.
The OIG report also blamed IBB executives for doing nothing when dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia were fired under a pretext that the Russian authorities blocked radio rebroadcasting in Russia and that they did not have digital skills. (Most of them were in fact digital media experts, which they proved in a successful effort to get the BBG to replace the RFE/RL management team and to win back their jobs — some were rehired.) Ironically, some of the IBB executives who allowed this major PR and public diplomacy crisis to develop are now serving as advisors on BBG strategy in Russia.
The OIG report also noted:
“While the move to mostly-digital platforms by U.S. Government broadcasters may have been inevitable by virtue of Russian political decisions and changing media consumption habits, it has not proven as successful as hoped.”
“The British Broadcasting Corporation reaches 1.0 percent of the population online weekly, while the VOA Russian Service’s Web site (Golos-Ameriki.ru) reaches 0.1 percent. 4 Figures were not available for the RFE/RL Russian Service’s audience penetration online since its late 2012 decision to move to an all-Web presence; it was at 0.3 percent penetration online prior to that decision. The challenge for all broadcast entities in this highly competitive and sophisticated environment is to find a niche wherein they can offer unique content attractive to their target audience.” 4 Gallup, Analytical Report for Russian Media Use Survey, November 2012.
Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should pay close attention to Ms. Lagunina’s warning. They should order IBB executive staff and VOA executives to take it seriously. The Board should order these executives to immediately start implementing OIG recommendations.
BBG Has Outstanding Journalists, IBB Is Getting Somewhat Better, But Major Management Reforms Are Needed
As far as BBG board meeting presentations go, the one on April 11, 2014 was one of the better ones. VOA Ukrainian television program host Myroslava Gongadze, VOA Ukrainian Service director Andrei Karmazyn, RFE/RL Ukrainian Service director Marianna Drach, Irina Lagunina and most of the other participants were all impressive. Robert Bole was excellent as a moderator. His approach to dealing with the journalistic staff and to conducting such panels is a welcome change in IBB management.
As important as Ukraine is right now, the presentation for the Board and U.S. taxpayers who pay the agency’s bills should have been focused largely on Russia. Ukraine has been and is the much easier part because it now has a friendly government, while Russia represents the real challenge. The tendency at IBB has always been to show what’s good and easy and to avoid discussing before the Board what’s difficult and deficient. The VOA Russian Service and VOA English Newsroom were not even represented during the panel.
The presentation also should have focused largely on the BBG and the IBB and VOA management rather than on the journalists who are doing an excellent job anyway with limited resources and the failing management in Washington.
What have top agency officials done to respond to the crisis would have been a much more useful question to ask. Several of the participating journalists implied strongly that they have received very little help from the management and still can’t do their jobs properly because they still lack basic resources.
The number of staffers at key VOA services was not immediately increased and there was no immediate surge of resources.
Months after the crisis started, VOA Ukrainian Service still did not have additional staff to update its website and social pages.
VOA English Newsroom missed news story after news story and was late and superficial on many others. It posted a map showing Ukraine as part of Russia.
RFE/RL management responded quickly to the crisis, but was not given additional resources.
The BBG got some outside government money, but it was too little, too late.
The most critical management failure was this: There was no all-out effort to immediately re-allocate internal resources (largely from IBB, but also within VOA) to key services while trying to get additional funding.
We do not blame the IBB interim management team, which has limited power and experience to deal with such emergencies. They did work with Congress on the Ukraine Support Act. But overall, this was a much larger task that perhaps a well politically-connected CEO, who has not yet been selected, could have handled. Getting outside funding was also a task for BBG members, but even though they did get some money, this has not been the kind of surge response that we saw when the United States Information Agency (USIA) still existed.
Whether having a CEO will change things remains to be seen. It depends on how well politically-connected the person is, how well she or he knows the agency, particularly the IBB part of it, how much she or he knows about journalism, public diplomacy and foreign policy, and how well she or he can manage and inspire working journalists and the rest of the staff at various BBG entities.
What is needed for now is a multi-media diversification strategy, that could be different for Ukraine and for Russia, but which should have not only digital online media, but also satellite television and radio, including AM transmissions from Lithuania, local rebroadcasting in eastern Ukraine, and possibly increased shortwave broadcasts as well.
In light of what Ms. Lagunina said on Friday, and what the OIG inspector said earlier, no one at IBB can say that they have not been warned.