BBG Watch Commentary
For the federal agency claiming to uphold the highest journalistic standards abroad, the latest Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) press release and the statement from BBG CEO John Lansing on the detention and expulsion from Russia of BBG Chairman Jeff Shell is so devoid of critical material facts that it could only be described as misleading and possibly deceptive — definitely much less honest than statements on the incident from the State Department and the White House. A Voice of America (VOA) report on the incident is also remarkably short on critical details of the bungling of the trip planning by the BBG bureaucracy, their inability to predict the expulsion and protect against it, the use by Mr. Shell of his regular passport instead of his diplomatic one, the mixing of private and U.S. government business, and the conflict of interest questions surrounding BBG Chairman trying to do business in government mafia-run Russia while at the same time leading the fight at the BBG against Russian government’s media censorship.
Even the U.S. State Department and the White House were far more honest, although not completely, about the incident than the statements issued by the BBG and the VOA report. It is not at all clear from BBG statement and the VOA news report that BBG CEO John Lansing and IBB deputy director Jeff Trimble were in fact traveling to Russia at the same time as Mr. Shell and that both were granted entry by the Russian authorities. Other critical facts are also missing or downplayed in the BBG statements.
It is obvious from comments made by the State Department and the White House spokesmen that the Obama administration was put in an embarrassing situation by a number of mistakes made by the BBG bureaucracy and Mr. Shell. They have chosen the wrong time for their visit to Moscow. Mr. Shell has attempted to mix private business with U.S. government business.
The BBG bureaucracy led by CEO John Lansing and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) deputy director and Russia expert Jeff Trimble failed to strongly advise Mr. Shell not to travel to Russia at this time or at least not to mix his private business with U.S. government business. They apparently failed to strongly advise him to seek a Russian diplomatic visa and to use his U.S. diplomatic passport if he absolutely wanted to go to Russia and wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident at the airport.
You can read these various statements and decide for yourself. The lack of critical material facts in BBG statements and the VOA report is quite glaring.
Mark C. Toner, Deputy Spokesperson, U.S. State Department, Daily Press Briefing, Washington, DC, July 13, 2016
QUESTION: Different issue.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And this is Russia.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: And what is your understanding of what happened to the head – the Broadcasting Board of Governors chairman? Have you made representations to the Russians? Will this come up when the Secretary is there – is it tomorrow or Friday?
MR TONER: So a couple of things on that, Matt. First of all, we’re still, frankly, in the process of sorting through all the details of what happened yesterday, or last night, and the timing of what occurred. But obviously, everybody’s seen the reports. You know also that the Broadcasting Board of Governors did issue a statement on the matter. I’d refer you to that and to them for additional details. I’m limited here. And I’m limited because we’ve not yet received a Privacy Act waiver. Once I do, I’ll be able to say a bit more but not a whole lot more about the incident and about the case.
QUESTION: Well, I —
MR TONER: I said a little bit. And I did —
QUESTION: So the Privacy Act now applies to officials – government – all right, it’s an independent government agency and I realize it is kind of a part – it is a part-time job.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: But he still was traveling in his official capacity. The BBG, as you noted, put out a statement. It said that the other people who were with him on this delegation went to the embassy, spoke to Ambassador Tefft, and then they thanked Ambassador Tefft and the Department back here for their urgent —
MR TONER: So I was going to finish that.
QUESTION: Oh, okay, I thought you were done.
MR TONER: I was – allow me to go on a little bit further and say —
QUESTION: I’m sorry. I thought you were done.
MR TONER: That’s okay. No worries. We were, when alerted – our embassy in Moscow – to what was happening and to the incident, we did obviously go and assist Chairman Shell. But your question highlights some of the ongoing questions and details that we’re trying to sort through, which is in exactly what capacity he was travelling. And I have to stop there because you said he is – it is a role that he plays. He is also a private citizen.
QUESTION: Well, it’s my understanding that he was supposed to go to a reception or to ceremony today marking the – an anniversary for Radio Liberty in Moscow. That would seem to me that he was doing this not in his private capacity at NBCUniversal but rather in his capacity as chairman of the BBG.
MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to read too much into this and I don’t want to – I just – all I’m trying to say, Matt, is I don’t have full Privacy Act clearance to go any further. And frankly, we’re still trying to sort through the details of what actually happened. As to why he was denied, that’s really something for the Russians to speak to. Whether we raised our concerns with the Russians – we did.
QUESTION: You did?
MR TONER: And whether it will come up with Secretary Kerry, I don’t know.
QUESTION: Okay. The Russians have said that the reason that he was denied entry was because he was put on an expanded stop list that was expanded because you guys expanded sanctions against individual Russians. Did they – have they not given you that explanation? They made it publicly.
MR TONER: Have they made that publicly?
QUESTION: The foreign ministry.
MR TONER: Well, look, Matt, I’m not going to – again, if they’ve said publicly, they’ve offered their explanation. I said it’s not for us to explain what happened to him. It’s for them to speak to why they refused his entry.
QUESTION: Well, I’m not really asking you to explain what happened to him.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: I would like to know whether or not you disagree with what happened to him. When you say you express your concerns, did you —
MR TONER: Well, look, we’re concerned.
QUESTION: — did you protest it?
MR TONER: We expressed our concerns about what happened. We’re still trying to see – sort through the precise details of what happened, and why he was refused. I’m aware of some of the public comments that they’ve made, certainly. And with regard to that public reason that they gave, all I’ll say to that is, look, the appropriate response for Russia to any of our sanctions would be to address the concerns on which our sanctions are based and not to do a tit-for-tat.
MR TONER: You’re saying that – you’re saying that public – that the public response that he gave, that he was put on a no-fly list or a no-entry list —
QUESTION: Yes, both – both countries do this tit-for-tat all the time. You guys never seem to – when they – why are you asking them to do what you guys won’t do?
MR TONER: Our sanctions are —
QUESTION: I mean, there were just two – four diplomats, two from each side, expelled from each of the countries last week. This happens on and – happens over and over again. It doesn’t seem like any – is that really a reasonable or a logical expectation?
MR TONER: Well, it is in the sense of if Russia wants the sanctions lifted – all the sanctions – we’ve spelled out a clear way by which those sanctions can be lifted. So if they meet those commitments and they meet those expectations, then they can be lifted.
QUESTION: Well, is it fair to say that you have a problem with this guy not being able to get in to the country?
MR TONER: It’s fair to say we have concerns about what happened, yes.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
MR TONER: Do you think – I mean, given the increasing diplomatic tensions going on, not only the fact that you expelled some of theirs, but this is now the latest in a long list that’s been going on now for several weeks, do you really think this is business as usual between the countries? I mean, there’s a lot festering —
MR TONER: I wouldn’t use that term.
QUESTION: There’s a lot festering underneath here, and —
MR TONER: But I wouldn’t use that term. I mean, look, we’re – the Secretary is traveling to Moscow and he’s been very clear what the goal is, and that is to try to resuscitate the cessation of hostilities and the fact that we are yet again going to Russia to try to get its buy-in on a process that can lead to a nationwide ceasefire, or a cessation of hostilities. We haven’t seen that thus far, but we’re having another go at this. The Secretary has been very clear about the fact that they’ve not lived up to their commitments so far in terms of exerting influence on the regime to stop these ongoing attacks on opposition forces who are adhering to the cessation of hostilities. And the overall effect of that is you’ve got ongoing violence, you don’t have a nationwide cessation of hostilities that all these parties have allegedly committed to and the regime has committed to, and that just stymies the political process, and you’ve just got – you – so you can’t go forward on this, and we need to go forward.
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/14/2016
Q And then, yesterday, an appointee that President Obama named — Jeff Shell — to the Broadcasting Board of Governors was briefly detained and then deported from Russia. This is just a string of recent incidents where American diplomats and personnel have been harassed — high-profile incidents. Is this something that the President would like Secretary Kerry to raise in the meeting? And given the harassment of Americans, that doesn’t set a good table for the U.S. to go in and negotiate with Russia right now if they feel that willing to assault American diplomats in the street.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t speak to any individual case. And I’ll let my colleagues at the State Department provide a readout of Secretary Kerry’s discussions with leaders in Russia. I’ll just say in general, as it relates to U.S. diplomats, that we regularly remind leaders in countries around the world where our diplomats are stationed that those countries have a responsibility, they have made a commitment to ensure the safety and security of U.S. diplomats that are serving around the world. We expect every country, including Russia, to live up to that commitment.
Q Is the President aware that Jeff Shell was detained and deported yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m just not in a position to speak to any individual cases. The President is certainly aware of specific concerns about mistreatment of U.S. diplomats in Russia.
Broadcasting Board of Governors, On the detainment of BBG Chair Jeff Shell by John F. Lansing, July 15, 2016
On Tuesday, BBG Board Chairman Jeff Shell was denied entry into Russia and detained at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport. Despite having a valid passport and Russian visa, he was detained in a locked room for several hours, before being accompanied by Russian security officials to board a flight to Amsterdam.
The Russian Foreign Ministry subsequently announced, falsely, that Chairman Shell was a key organizer of “anti-Russian propaganda” and was being sanctioned in retaliation to the United States’ visa sanctions against Russian citizens. They further clarified their position by emphasizing that anyone who sanctions Russia should expect “unavoidable retaliation.”
This blatant aggression is unfortunately not reserved for foreign officials and businessmen. Every day, the Russian government silences critics and tightly controls the flow of information in and around the country. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty provide unbiased and uncensored news and information to audiences living in Russia and the Russian periphery. But they do so at great risk.
Over the last year, journalists at VOA and RFE/RL have been the subject of numerous smear campaigns orchestrated by Kremlin-supported media, and several of our reporters and contributors have been threatened and have had their homes searched.
And while Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik enjoy access to the airwaves in the United States, U.S. international broadcasters are denied licenses to broadcast in Russia.
The mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is clear. We have and will continue to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. I am proud of the innovative programs and services our dedicated journalists and staff have provided to the Russian public. We believe they have the right to unfettered access to information, and we will continue to report the facts and provide access to basic information.
While the incident with our Board Chair was unfortunate, it reminds us why the work we do is so important and why we will not be deterred.
Broadcasting Board of Governors, U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors Chair denied access to Russia, July 13, 2016
WASHINGTON, D.C. — BBG Chairman Jeff Shell was denied entry into Russia and detained at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport last night after arriving shortly before midnight on a flight from Prague. Shell was denied entry into the country despite having a valid passport and Russian visa, and subsequently detained in a locked room for several hours, before being accompanied by Russian security officials to board a flight to Amsterdam. No explanation has yet been given to Shell, or the BBG, for his detention.
Shell told colleagues with whom he was traveling that airport security authorities told him the denial of entry into Russia has permanent status and is “a life-time ban.”
BBG officials met with U.S. Ambassador John Tefft in Moscow this morning to discuss the incident and to thank the Ambassador and the U.S. Department of State for their urgent attention to the matter.
Mr. Shell is a Presidential appointee who serves in a part-time capacity as Chairman of the Board that oversees all U.S. international media. He is also the chairman of NBCUniversal’s Filmed Entertainment Division.
Last updated on: July 13, 2016 5:03 PM
The chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other U.S. government broadcasters, was denied entry to Russia this week and detained for several hours at a Moscow airport.
BBG chairman Jeff Shell is also chairman of the NBC Universal media conglomerate. Russian officials said he has been placed on a “stop list of individuals denied entry into Russia for his role in steering anti-Russian propaganda,” the Tass news agency reported.
Russian authorities pulled Shell out of a line of arriving travelers at the airport late Tuesday, although he had a valid Russian visa.
Shell said he was held in a locked room for several hours before authorities put him on a flight to Amsterdam. The BBG chairman told colleagues he was informed he was being denied entry to Russia permanently, and now is subject to a “lifetime ban.”
“An armed guard came and got me at about 5 a.m. and walked me onto the plane and to my seat,” Shell told reporters Wednesday morning when he arrived in Western Europe. “He gave my passport to the pilot and said not to give it back to me until I was on Dutch soil. It was quite embarrassing.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Shell was barred from Russia because he is chief of a “propagandist” U.S. government agency.
It also said the ban was retaliation for U.S. travel sanctions against 70 Russians, including several high-ranking officials, over what Russia contends are “highly contrived pretexts” concerning Ukraine.
“Sanctions are always a doubled-edged sword. Whoever introduces them against Russia should be mindful of the imminence of counter-measures,” a ministry statement said.
BBG officials have met in Moscow with U.S. Ambassador John Tefft.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. has raised its concerns, but does not know if Secretary of State John Kerry plans to bring it up during his upcoming talks in Moscow.
Ties between Russia and the United States have generally been cool over Russian backing for separatists in Ukraine, and Russian airstrikes on U.S.-backed opposition fighters in Syria.
Two Russian diplomats were expelled from the United States in June after a Russian policeman attacked an American diplomat outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow.