BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Logo

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the U.S. federal agency in charge of international news programs designed to overcome censorship and strengthen democracy abroad, has posted on its official website the following announcement:

BBG Panel: New Russian Laws – Tightening The Noose On Free Speech?

Please note the question mark.

We think that the question mark sends a really bad signal to human rights activists in Russia — the Broadcasting Board of Governors executives are not quite sure whether Mr. Putin’s new media restrictions are really all that bad after all.

Was the question mark really necessary?

We know what is bad about this announcement, although Broadcasting Board of Governors senior executives would no doubt disagree with us.

It is bad journalism, bad public diplomacy, and bad public relations.

We know that the BBG executive team, along with some former BBG members, was responsible for terminating Voice of America (VOA) radio and television broadcasts to Russia in 2008, just days before the Russian army invaded parts of the territory of the Republic of Georgia. They were also pushing for ending Voice of America broadcasts to Tibet and China. We also know that they referred in an official BBG statement to the brutal murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens as his “passing.” The statement was later modified after BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe protested and demanded that the incident be referred to as a “murder” of the U.S. Ambassador.

Strategic thinking aside, we must say that for experts working for the U.S. international communications agency, these senior Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) executives are not very good with words — or, for that matter, with punctuation marks.

These executives also made a decision to expand the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) news bureau in Moscow at a total cost, current and future, of millions of dollars. They also want to keep the new director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service Masha Gessen in Moscow (an excellent candidate for the position otherwise), which should make it much easier for Mr. Putin’s security services to monitor her communications and contacts with news sources and with staff of RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic, even with senior IBB executives and BBG members in Washington.

That decision puts a lot of people at risk. Putin’s security goons could not have asked for a better arrangement. And all of this is happening just as Mr. Putin is kicking USAID out of Russia to disrupt its support for Russian pro-democracy NGOs.

It seems that BBG executives are still optimistic on Mr. Putin, which might explain their use of the question mark in the announcement for their panel discussion on Russia. Or perhaps they don’t want to antagonize Mr. Putin too much or he might ask RFE/RL to leave Russia, just as he had already made sure that private Russian radio and TV broadcasters would not rebroadcast RFE/RL and VOA programs on local frequencies and cable channels.

If you are a BBG executive who has made these strategic assumptions and wants to keep the director of Radio Liberty in Moscow, you can’t now say that Mr. Putin and his security services are the source of all evil — therefore the question mark, in our opinion.

Or perhaps BBG executives are simply confused what is or what isn’t media freedom. Voice of America Executive Editor requested the United Nations to revoke the UN press accreditation of independent American journalist Matthew Russell Lee who reports for Inner City Press. His offense was to get into a private dispute with a VOA correspondent and to annoy the VOA official with his emails.

The moderator of the “Putin Tightening the Noose on Free Speech, Question Mark” panel is Jeff Trimble, Deputy Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). BBG staffers who write these announcements work for him, BBG’s Director of Communications and External Affairs Lynne Weil. They all report to IBB Director Richard Lobo.

Fortunately, the panel includes several excellent experts who no doubt will attempt to remove the question mark inserted in the BBG announcement. You may be able to judge for yourself. The announcement says that the discussion can be viewed on-demand from the link below.

Windows Media Broadband On Demand Link:


Date: September 19, 2012, 11:00 A.M.—12:00 P.M. (Please arrive by 10:45 AM to allow time for check-in. Photo ID required.)

Moderator: Jeffrey Trimble, Deputy Director, International Broadcasting Bureau


Susan Corke, Director of Eurasia Programs, Freedom House

Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian journalist, historian and politician

Miriam Lanskoy, Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy

David Satter, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute and Foreign Policy Institute Fellow, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies