BBG Watch Commentary
In the “FACT SHEET: U.S. Support for Ukraine,” the White House has announced a mid-October launch of a daily, 30-minute Russian language television news program that will be a joint production of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. According to the White House announcement, the program will be shown on television affiliates in Ukraine, as well as in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Georgia, and possibly other countries. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty as well as other U.S. international media outreach entities, will seek to make the program available to Russian-speaking news-seekers worldwide via digital platforms, the White House announcement says. As of 2:00 PM EDT, Friday, there is nothing on the Voice of America or the Broadcasting Board of Governors websites expanding on the White House announcement with regard to the new Russian language TV news project.
The White House’s U.S. Support for Ukraine Fact Sheet makes no mention of Voice of America’s recent and highly controversial television cooperation with the Russian Business Channel (RBC). Experts on Russian disinformation believe this project is used by the Kremlin to promote powerful anti-American and and pro-Putin disinformation themes to the Russian-speaking television audiences with participation of VOA journalists and guests.
READ: Voice of America helped Russia score propaganda points with poor VOA performance in a TV project, BBG Watch, Sept. 2, 2014.
VOA’s senior management has ceded almost all control of the program to RBC and agreed to its title “Cold War?,” which reflects the show’s main theme constantly reinforced by the Russian side which accuses the United States is waging a war against Russia. In the joint show with VOA broadcast last week, the Russian host in Moscow had accused U.S. Republican Senator John McCain of hating Russia, wanting to fight and kill, and to provide arms to Ukraine. The Russian television host also alleged that Senator McCain called President Obama “stupid,” a quote we could not find and confirm.
Accusations by the Russian host against Senator McCain were not directly challenged by the Voice of America, but the VOA presenter and guests in Washington made repeated points that the U.S. does not want war with Russia. They were strongly and effectively challenged by the Russian host. VOA guests were often cut off by RBC. According to numerous experts consulted by BBG Watch, the VOA-RBC show is a major propaganda scoop for the Kremlin due to the one-sided and deceptive arrangement and the weakness of the Voice of America’s performance.
READ: McCain wants to fight and kill, Russian TV says in joint program with Voice of America, BBG Watch, Sept. 16, 2014.
In commenting on the current VOA’s controversial television affiliate program placement co-production with the Russians, one of the top U.S. experts on Russian disinformation Prof. Paul Goble said:
PROF. PAUL GOBLE: “I think this is a big mistake because it sends the wrong message and becomes yet another reason the BBG [Broadcasting Board of Governors] will use not to move to the next generation of international communications, direct-to-home satellite television. We will be used, I fear.”
Prof. Goble has been a lecturer at a number of universities in the U.S. and abroad. He also worked at the State Department, as a CIA analyst, and as program manager and advisor at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and the Voice of America.
Voice of America Director David Ensor, however, defends the current VOA-RBC program while admitting that it is controlled by the Russians.
VOA DIRECTOR DAVID ENSOR: When national security stakes are higher, we are ready to accept calculated risks to get into markets and to reach people, for example right now, and there are blogs about this and controversy about this, fair enough. … We have a new co-production with Russian Business Channel called “Cold War?” I don’t know whether Putin is long going to allow this to continue, but he is at the moment. We have had two broadcast on so far in last two weeks… which reach 11 percent of the Russian television audience … this audience has watched while Russian and American journalists and commentators debate Ukraine and other topics over which they differ. And it is true the Russian anchor uses all the advantages, he has the microphone….the engineers work for him, it is his show, it is his audience, and of course President Putin and his policies are popular in Russia so there are many advantages from the RBC side of the argument, but nevertheless this audience is now hearing something new, both sides. … Those of you who follow this issue know that is not what the Kremlin says, they say they have no troops in Ukraine, but our guests having seen the information that is available in the West, but no so much in Russia, know otherwise.
Almost all U.S. and European experts consulted by BBG Watch disagree with the VOA Director’s description of the program’s effectiveness and counter that the program is far more effective in pushing the Kremlin’s disinformation line to Russian television viewers than in presenting and explaining U.S. views. This point was made among others by a West European expert on information warfare who wants to remain anonymous for sensitive professional and diplomatic reasons.
WEST EUROPEAN EXPERT ON DISINFORMATION AND PROPAGANDA: …the asymmetry in the communication between the Russian host and his Voice of America presenter and VOA guests persists and it is deliberate. The Russians have a clear home advantage.
The Russian producers of the Business Channel applied the finest techniques of visual persuasion, such as close ups on the anchor to underline the Russian statements.
The VOA guests, being interviewed under controlled conditions, their arguments are countered almost exclusively by the anchor in the studio who seems to be part and parcel of the information war.
An interesting part of the messaging is done by the constant repetition of the official Russian argument. The narrative field is very narrow and boils down to: “threat by NATO, unjust sanctions, no proof of Russian intervention, cold war.” These elements of speech are the ones you will find in each official declaration of the Press Office of the Kremlin.
It is also no coincidence that a clip showing Senator John McCain–who has been officially labeled a cold warrior by the Kremlin–apparently chosen by VOA, was masterfully used by the Russian side against VOA.
When pushed back, the Russian anchor interrupts the participants and uses the known lines heard elsewhere in Russian government channels such as RT, implying that Western media lie, the vast majorities of figures and facts proving an actual Russian invasion of Ukraine are actually ‘fakes’ made up in part by journalists.
VOA is well advised to stop this experiment as soon as possible.
This program will go down in history as the example of Russian triumph in terms of info warfare.
READ: Russian TV with Voice of America: Obama – stupid, McCain – warmonger, journalists – fakes, BBG Watch, Sept. 16, 2014.
It appears that the TV program mentioned in the White House announcement will be entirely different from the VOA-RBC experiment criticized by Prof. Goble and others, as RFE/RL and VOA appear to retain full control of the proposed new program to debut in mid-October.
Hopefully, the new RFE/RL-VOA television news program will not have these problems of being tainted by disinformation from the Kremlin and used against the United States. The new program will be apparently under the full control of the Broadcasting Board of Governors rather than the dysfunctional management at VOA. Senior VOA executives seem, however, still keen on cooperating with a Russian affiliate for whom VOA is no match.
It appears from the White House announcement that RFE/RL, which is much better managed and has far more Russia expertise than VOA, will have the leading role in the new TV project. But former VOA and RFE/RL broadcasters and managers still worry about the low production values in VOA TV, which often looks like Russian TV did two decades ago.
The program described in the latest White House announcement on Ukraine will be a daily, 30-minute direct-to-home and direct-to-affiliates Russian language television news program.
The Voice of America already had such a television program in the mid-2000s, but the then management of VOA and the Broadcasting Board of Governors terminated it together with VOA Russian radio broadcasts. It happened shortly before the Russian invasion of the Republic of Georgia in August 2008.
VOA never became a major online news provider or social media player in Russia, as promised by the VOA and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) management in 2008. An independent Russian scholar concluded in a study for the BBG in 2011 that the VOA Russian Service website had a “pro-Putin bias.” The VOA Russian Service has improved its online content and performance since 2011, but it still remains uneven. The service lacks resources and management leadership and support, as does the entire organization. The only part that is expanding and doing well is the bloated bureaucracy, critics say.
Prof. Paul Goble is a strong supporter of U.S. funded direct-to-home television programming in the Russian language, not just for Russia but also for Russian speakers in nearby countries. He has been advocating for a 24/7 Russian language television channel, while the daily program proposed in the White House announcement will only be 30 min. Creating a 24/7 Russian language television channel would require from Congress tens of millions of dollars to fill it with news and other appealing programming. Such an investment seems unfortunately unlikely, although long-term benefits for the United States, national security, democracy and media freedom could be enormous.
In a lecture on the topic of Putin’s disinformation war, delivered at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, Prof. Goble said that if the United States had invested some time ago in a 24/7 direct-to-home Russian language satellite television channel, targeting not only Russia proper but also Russian-speakers in the former Soviet republics, the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine would not have happened because disinformation messages from the Kremlin would have been countered.
According to Prof. Goble, 24/7 direct-to-home satellite television is truly a new media model in terms of effectiveness in shaping public opinion. He said that direct-to-home satellite TV is more effective than social media, which is important in some areas, but not nearly as much as satellite television that can be viewed at home at any time.
Prof. Paul Goble at The Institute of World Politics on September 17, 2014
READ: No invasion of Ukraine if U.S. had 24/7 Russian TV channel, Paul Goble says, BBG Watch, Sept. 18, 2014.
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
The United States is firmly committed to supporting Ukraine as it works to establish security and stability, respond to humanitarian and reconstruction needs, conduct democratic elections and carry out constitutional reforms, restore its economy, and combat corruption. Along with our international partners, including the IMF, the United States is committed to supporting Ukraine’s reform agenda while also ensuring that Ukrainians are able to determine their future without intimidation or outside coercion.
In pursuit of these objectives, the U.S. government has provided approximately $291 million in assistance to Ukraine this year as well as a $1 billion loan guarantee. This includes the President’s announcement today of a new package of assistance totaling $53 million, of which:
- More than $7 million will be directed to international relief organizations to provide humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict in Ukraine’s east.
- $46 million in security assistance will support Ukraine’s military and border guards. This is in addition to the $70 million in security assistance we have previously announced.
The President has also asked U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to lead a U.S. Government delegation to Ukraine September 26-27 to meet with senior Ukrainian government and business leaders and discuss Ukrainian economic reform efforts and the steps that the government needs to take in the short- and medium-term to strengthen its business climate and build an economy that attracts private capital.
The U.S. government will continue to work with Congress to identify additional opportunities for U.S. assistance to Ukraine. For example, the Administration has requested from Congress an additional $45 million in FY 2015 as part of the President’s European Reassurance Initiative that would help build Ukraine’s capacity to provide for its own defense and increase interoperability with U.S. and Western forces.
Examples of U.S. assistance to Ukraine in response to the crisis include the following:
Humanitarian Assistance and Reconstruction
- The U.S. government is contributing to the work in Ukraine of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).
- These contributions are supporting Ukrainian efforts to ensure adequate reception of internally displaced persons (IDP) as well as to facilitate IDP returns when security conditions allow, including through the provision of food, cash, hygiene kits, medicines, and domestic and winter items. We are also supporting efforts to address the humanitarian needs of vulnerable populations in Luhansk and Donetsk through support for emergency activities including the procurement and distribution of safe drinking water and relief commodities.
- The U.S. government is also providing immediate support for economic recovery, small infrastructure repair, and restoration of public services in conflict-affected areas in the east.
Security Sector Capacity Building and Reform
- With today’s announcement, the U.S. government has committed to providing $116 million in equipment and training to Ukraine’s security forces to help Ukraine better monitor and secure its border, operate more safely and effectively, and preserve and enforce its territorial integrity. Ukraine’s security forces include their Armed Forces, National Guard, and State Border Guard Service.
- This assistance includes the provision of body armor, helmets, vehicles, night and thermal vision devices, heavy engineering equipment, advanced radios, patrol boats, rations, tents, counter-mortar radars, uniforms, and other related items.
- The United States has also begun a process led by U.S. European Command and Department of Defense civilian and military experts to work with Ukraine to improve its capacity to provide for its own defense and set the stage for longer-term defense cooperation. This includes medical advisory and security assistance advisory teams.
National Unity, Democracy, Human Rights, and Media
- The United States has contributed funding and personnel to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) that is monitoring and providing daily reporting, particularly in the conflict regions in the east.
- During Ukraine’s May presidential election, U.S. assistance supported the work of international and domestic election observers as well as efforts to strengthen election administration, voter education, election security, and independent media. The United States is providing similar assistance for pre-term parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.
- U.S. assistance is also supporting Ukrainian efforts to promote an inclusive process of constitutional reform that will help Ukraine meet European standards and drive the process of decentralization.
- The U.S. government is supporting civil society organizations to engage in public outreach, participate in the government reform process, and monitor and defend human rights.
- We are also providing assistance to boost the capacity of independent media outlets to provide unbiased information and to increase access to information in all parts of Ukraine. In mid-October, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) will launch a daily, 30-minute Russian language television news program that will be a joint production of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. The program will be shown on television affiliates in Ukraine, as well as in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Georgia, and possibly other countries. BBG will seek to make the program available to Russian-speaking news-seekers worldwide via digital platforms.
Economic Stabilization, Reform, and Growth
- In May, Ukraine closed on its offering of a $1 billion sovereign bond, guaranteed by the United States. With the support of the proceeds raised by the loan guarantee, Ukraine is implementing a new social protection program to compensate vulnerable households for increases in gas and heating tariffs, which will reach 30 percent of the population. The U.S. loan guarantee was part of a coordinated international effort to ensure Ukraine has the resources it needs, which will provide $27 billion to Ukraine as it implements its IMF program.
- Immediately following Ukraine’s change in government in March, the U.S. government deployed advisors to help stabilize the financial sector and implement key reforms in partnership with the Ukrainian Finance Ministry and National Bank. These advisors are supporting a range of reforms related to issues such as banking supervision, public sector debt management, infrastructure finance, and taxation.
- U.S. assistance also is supporting policy changes that will lay the groundwork for growth in important sectors of the Ukrainian economy. For example, we are helping Ukrainian authorities to carry out reforms that will boost private sector investment in agriculture, improve access to credit and capital investment for farmers, and streamline agricultural sector regulation.
- The United States is also contributing to international programs, including through the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to support increased access to finance for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and to help Ukraine implement the reforms it needs to attract international investment.
- We are sending a team of experts to help the Ukrainian government to meet its energy needs this winter.
- The U.S. government also is working with other international donors to help Ukraine develop strategies to ensure that energy subsidy programs are targeting the most vulnerable Ukrainians and to increase end-use energy efficiency, including among households and in the industrial sector.
- We also are supporting Ukrainian efforts to enhance its own energy production, including through technical assistance to help restructure Ukraine’s national oil and gas company, Naftogaz, and through the introduction of new technologies to boost yields at existing and new conventional and unconventional oil and gas fields in Ukraine.
Trade Diversification and Promotion
- The U.S. government is providing training and technical assistance to build Ukraine’s expertise on World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations and rights and how to meet WTO food safety standards.
- The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is convening the U.S.-Ukraine Trade and Investment Council to support Ukraine’s efforts to boost bilateral trade and investment and combat intellectual property theft.
- U.S. assistance is supporting efforts to help SMEs access new international markets. This includes plans for a U.S.-Ukraine agribusiness trade mission to promote two-way trade between our countries.
- The United States is working closely with Ukrainian authorities and others in the international community to help recover stolen assets, including through joint investigative activities as well as support for evidence collection and processing activities.
- We are also helping Ukrainian officials develop laws and regulations that will establish anti-corruption institutions within the government and enable authorities to combat corruption more effectively. Through support for expanded e-governance and procurement reform we are also working with Ukrainian authorities to limit opportunities for corruption.
- We are also contributing to international efforts, including through the OECD and the EBRD, to deter foreign bribery and improve Ukraine’s business climate.