BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Watch has noticed tendency among some Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists writing in English to post articles repeating Russia’s propaganda claims without offering sufficient and proper balance and without challenging obvious factual and historical falsehoods in official Russian statements. While this problem also affects other Western media, incredibly when it comes to English-language content, it is actually now worse at times at VOA and RFE/RL than in mainstream American media, or in such international outlets as the BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW).

SEE: What’s Behind Italy’s Step Back On Extending Sanctions Against Russia? | RFE/RL, December 10, 2015

SEE: NATO-Russia Talks Fail, But Raise Hopes | VOA, April 22, 2016

Willingness to seek and report false claims of repressive communist regimes without presenting countervailing evidence and without noting official and unofficial U.S. views has also been noted, particularly at VOA.

SEE: Exclusive: North Korea Denies Involvement in Cyber-attack on Sony Pictures | VOA, December 4, 2014

Even more disturbing is an occasional tendency among some of the same VOA and RFE/RL journalists to report on Russia’s accusations leveled against her immediate neighbors, including Ukraine, without offering as much as one sentence on what these smaller nations living in Russia’s shadow think about any threats from Russia to their sovereignty and security. Most of VOA and RFE/RL reports are not affected in this way, but a few from time to time treat countries such as Ukraine and the Baltic states as if they did not exist and their concerns were of no importance to the relationship between the West and Russia. Some of these reports present Kremlin’s claims of dubious veracity but fail to state official positions of the U.S. government, which is especially glaring when it happens in Voice of America programs.

Such inadequate journalism could be blamed on inexperience. But it can also be blamed on what has been described as imperial hubris in how Western intellectual elites on the Left, and sometimes on the Right, see smaller nations of Central and Eastern Europe. One analyst, Fabio Belafatti, argues that “Orientalism,” a term used by the late scholar Edward W. Said to describe patronizing Western thinking about the “East,” also describes some of the current attitudes of many Western journalists towards Eastern Europe.

“Even more importantly, according to Said, the ‘East’ was (is) constantly portrayed as an invariably passive subject, unable and unworthy of being an active subject in its own way. Western colonial and post-colonial stereotypes see it as a sleeping, passive entity, subject to the action of a West believed to be the one and only entity worth of the dignity of an active subject.

Today, the Ukrainian crisis is revealing the existence of a strikingly similar prejudice. This time, though, the victim is not the Middle East, but Eastern Europe. Pro-Russian comments that appeared in Western media over the last few months all provided jaw-dropping, blatant examples of this stereotype, to the point that one can’t help but wonder what prevented the authors – some of which I know personally – from pausing for a moment to think before writing.

Both VOA and RFE/RL still have a few excellent journalists reporting in English and quite a few reporting in various foreign languages. There is a substantial amount of outstanding news reporting and analysis these U.S. taxpayer-funded outlets still produce. But while journalistically solid Russia and Eastern Europe-related content can be found on RFE/RL and VOA websites, critics such as a former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member and former Radio Liberty director S. Enders Wimbush and many others, describe the overall performance and impact of U.S. international media outreach in the region as “feeble.”

There is little chance of any substantial improvements of journalism at RFE/RL and VOA without major restructuring of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) itself–reforms proposed in the bipartisan bill H.R. 2323 which was approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee but has not seen further legislative action in the current Congress.

While we wait for a major improvement in oversight for U.S. international broadcasting, without which there is little hope for any real progress, two articles published in 2014 and 2015 should become required reading for RFE/RL and VOA reporters and editors. They should be read especially by those who seem to have problems identifying propaganda in Russian government statements and reporting on them objectively. More journalism training as well as area and history studies that these less experienced, poorly led RFE/RL and VOA reporters and editors may still need must be provided. BBG members and executives staff at the BBG, VOA, and RFE/RL would also benefit from reading these articles.

The two articles, one by Fabio Belafatti, an Italian specialist on Central Asia who now teaches at the University of Vilnius and earlier worked in Latvia and Tajikistan, and the second one by Christopher Szabo, a Hungarian commentator, were summarized this week by Paul Goble on his Window on Eurasia blog. Goble is an American scholar who at various times had worked for RFE/RL, VOA, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Mr. Goble, who specializes in analyzing Russian media and Russian government’s propaganda, had worked also as an analyst for the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.

The fact that the recommendation of these two article as required reading has to be made is indeed a very sad commentary on VOA, RFE/RL, and their oversight agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. During the Cold War, the most sophisticated analysis of Soviet propaganda came from no other source but Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, to some degree from the Voice of America when the U.S. executive branch interference with journalism was not too severe, and from the now defunct United States Information Agency (USIA).

Unlike today, top notch experts and highly experienced journalists were recruited then to work for U.S. international broadcasting. New employees had to pass strict security checks. A separate and highly engaged board provided the necessary oversight for RFE and RL, while the Voice of America benefited at times from foreign policy expertise of Foreign Service public diplomacy officers at USIA provided they did not also try to skew programming for short-term political goals, which also happened at various times. The end result, however, was much more journalistically solid and professional product compared to what BBG entities are capable of producing now. Cultural and political sensitivity was much higher than it is now. There was some imperial hubris, especially at the Voice of America and among some USIA officers, but it was nowhere as bad as it is now. It’s time to change the culture, starting with the Broadcasting Board of Governors.


Window on Eurasia — New Series

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Paul Goble at IWP 9-17-14

Why Do Many Westerners Show Such Sympathy to Russia and Communism – But Not to Their Victims?

Paul Goble
Staunton, April 30 – Those who study the post-Soviet world and especially its non-Russian parts are often struck by the fact that many who do so show an understanding or even sympathetic deference to Russia and Russian feelings while ignoring those of the peoples of living in countries near Russia and a tendency to forget or downplay the crimes of communism.

There are many reasons for this pattern, of course; but two articles which have appeared this past week provide an important part of the answer for approaches that have distorted the world’s understanding of what is going on and has been going on in the former Soviet bloc and allowed some of the crimes of the past to continue into the present.

In an article on the Euromaidanpress portal, Fabio Belafatti, an Italian specialist on Central Asia who now teaches at the University of Vilnius and earlier worked in Latvia and Tajikistan, argues that such sympathy and deference to Russia reflects a rebirth of Orientalism (

He says “pro-Russian commentators in many Western countries have been portraying the Ukrainian events using a mix of stereotypes that scarily resemble the rhetoric once typical of racist and imperialist ways of thinking [and]as a result … [they along with] Georgians, Moldovans, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians have fallen victim to a new form of Orientalism.”

That term was introduced and popularized by Edward W. Said in his 1978 book of that title, Belafatti continues, in which the Columbia University scholar argued that “Western commentators consistently looked (and look) at the Orient as an entity incapable of evolving, stuck in an endless past of decadence and backwardness.”

Said, Belafatti points out, argued that those who follow this approach “constantly portray” the East “as an invariably passive subject, unable and unworthy of being an active subject in its own way,” with the West in contrast being presented as “the one and only entity worth the dignity of an active subject.”

“The Ukrainian crisis is revealing the existence of a strikingly similar prejudice” both among Moscow commentators and pro-Russian ones in the West, the Vilnius scholar argues. There are two basic kinds of pro-Russian narratives, he suggests. One argues that Russia should be excused for its actions because the West has done something similar or worse elsewhere.

The other, which Belafatti calls the geopolitical, “defends Russia’s actions by accusing the West of ‘interfering’ in the business of a region where it does not have any right to operate, or expresses understanding for Moscow’s preoccupation about the enlargement of NATO, the erosion of its sphere of influence, the actions of EU and NATO in its ‘near abroad,’ and so on.”

It is around this second theme that Orientalism is playing a role. Indeed, Belafatti suggests, “practically all those who defend Russia in this debate fell into this trap [with] many of the articles [accusing] the West of “causing” the Ukrainian chaos by “provoking” Russia in its strategic interests and wounding its pride of great power.”

Such an argument demonstrates, the Vilnius specialist says that “the authors write from a distorted, hierarchical and, ultimately, orientalist (if not outright racist) perspective on the small countries of Eastern Europe,” one that takes as a given that Russia has “inalienable” rights to run this region and that “Eastern Europe [is] nothing but a tool to compensate Russia’s unresolved inferiority complexes.”

“The idea that Russian actions are legitimate reactions to the interference of “outsiders” in a region seen as “Russian” is nothing but a 2.0 expression of the same imperialist mentality with which Europeans empires split the Middle East. This is all the more surprising as it often comes from people who embrace ostensibly anti-imperialist positions in any other context,” Belafatti observes.

And this perspective spawns other “appalling ideas” such as the one that “Russia is right in interfering in Ukraine because it already ‘had to give up’ the Baltic States in the past and ‘the West’ really shouldn’t ‘deprive’ it of other countries,” regardless of what the peoples of these countries have experienced in the past and what they want for the future.
“For far too many Western experts what really matters is the Russian feelings,” Belafatti says. “What Ukrainians, Poles, Moldovans, Balts, Georgians, Armenians may think, is much less significant, because it’s just the feeling of “others,” subaltern subjects, unworthy of the dignity of actors, at best reacting victims of an orientalist interpretation of history that Westerners apply far too often to their Eastern European neighbors.”

“Pro-Russian commentators’ orientalist thinking emerges in the way they portray Ukraine as a country incapable of action on its own initiative. They invariably see Eastern European countries as objects manipulated by the West. [And] Former communist countries are seen as victims of an inclusion in Western security structures carried out against their will.”

“This is of course nonsense: the integration of Eastern Europe in Euro-Atlantic security structures happened” because the East Europeans campaigned for it, often in ways Western actors have often found far too pressing.” To write otherwise is “not just post-Soviet nostalgic thinking: it is outright racism” because it’s actually Russia who should be held responsible for destabilizing the region with its opposition to the desires” of its neighbors.”

“It is therefore racist to think that nobody east of the EU may want an order of things in which Russia doesn’t dominate, as if we “Westerners” were the only ones worth of, or capable of fighting for, things like rule of law, human rights and so on.” The peoples of the region are actors and should be recognized as such.

The second article by Christopher Szabo, a Hungarian commentator, explicitly asks “Why are we so understanding toward the crimes of Communism?” (

Part of the reason for this, Szabo says, is that what the West likes to call “the collapse of Communism” in fact was largely peaceful because those who had been in power became “the new political elite and the wealthiest stratum of society.” In short, the nomenklatura took advantage of the changes with the lesson being “’crime pays.’”

But another part and one that helps explain “the lack of justice for victims of communism” is “Western apathy toward [its] victims,” something “hard to understand for those … whose families were affected and very hurtful” and the product of the spread of “cultural Marxism and simple ignorance.”

Few in the West today talk about the crimes of communism, even when information about their horrors have become available and even when these horrors continue in places where communists are still in power, Szabo points out. One of these is mass rape. The Red Army raped from three to four million East European women at the end of World War II. Today, the Chinese communist forces engage in similar actions in Tibet.

“One cannot help wondering,” Szabo says, “where the feminists are in all this” and what can be done. Obviously, more attention must be given to the crimes of communism via memorials and mass media. Unfortunately, the trend is going in the other direction at the present time.

Thus, the Hungarian journalist writes, “there are some memorials to the victims of the Gulag in Ukraine and Russia, but since the rise of Vladimir Putin, some have been taken down and some have been ‘re-scripted’ to whitewash history.”

All too often, he says, “the liberal West and Putin’s regime are in agreement: all memory of communism’s crimes must be carefully edited out of all books, films and other media and quickly forgotten.” That needs to change because many of these crimes continue or at least continue to cast a shadow on the world.



Orientalism reanimated: colonial thinking in Western analysts’ comments on Ukraine

Article by: Fabio Belafatti

Over the last few months,pro-Russian commentators in many Western countries have been portraying the Ukrainian events using a mix of stereotypes that scarily resemble the rhetoric once typical of racist and imperialist ways of thinking. As a result of such stereotypes, Ukrainians (but also Georgians, Moldovans, Poles, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonians) have fallen victims to a new form of Orientalism, a distorted way of thinking that people in the West exhibit all too often when talking about other parts of the world. This contribution tries to provide food for thought to readers and commentators and urge the latter to stop and think before writing about Eastern Europe: first we may all need to rid ourselves of stereotypes that we may not even be aware of.

READ MORE: Orientalism reanimated: colonial thinking in Western analysts’ comments on Ukraine, By Fabio Belafatti, Euromaidan Press, October 27, 2014



Why are we so understanding towards the crimes of Communism?

The different fates of two 94-year-old war criminals raise questions about justice.

Christopher Szabo | Jul 22 2015 |


Entrance to Budapest’s Memento Park featuring mnoumental statues of Lenin (left)
and Marx and Engels. Ferran Cornellà / Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

On June 1, 2015, a deeply shocking event took place in the former Communist-ruled Hungary. A Court of Second Instance (lower appeals court) voided an earlier court’s finding that a top Communist official and one of the instigators of reprisals against the 1956 Freedom Fighters, Béla Biszku (94), was guilty of war crimes and was responsible for the murder of unarmed demonstrators in Budapest during the dying days of the Hungarian Revolution.

Figures of these reprisals vary, but over 20,000 people were interned, and another 20,000 were jailed and some 400 executed. A certain number were even kidnapped from nearby states and either murdered on the spot or brought before kangaroo courts.

One of the main movers behind these shocking figures, obviously a man with blood on his hands, now walks free.

By contrast, the trial of Oskar Gröning, a Nazi bookkeeper (also 94 years old) who worked at Auschwitz, who killed no one, and who tried to get himself assigned to another job, has been reported around the world. He was found guilty by a court in Germany and sentenced to four years in prison.

So why did a war criminal go free in Hungary, and why did you likely not even hear about it?

The Communism that did not ‘collapse’

Firstly, while what the West called the “collapse of Communism” (Central and Eastern European countries use much less triumphalist terminology, such as “the change of system”) did achieve a largely peaceful transfer of power from a brutal party-state dictatorship to a multi-party democracy; and from a non-functioning centrally-planned economy to some version of a free market, because of the unequal relations between former holders of power and their victims it is not surprising that the erstwhile murderers, torturers and perpetrators of genocide, or their children, came out on top and became both the new political elite and the wealthiest stratum of society.

In other words the members of the all-pervading Communist Party Nomenklatura got into positions where they would be able to take advantage of the “changes”. The lesson to the youth was – and remains — “crime pays”.

Indeed, there are only three countries that have succeeded in some measure in forcing a small level of accountability on the former single party. These are Poland, the Czech Republic and Rumania. (East Germany is no longer a separate country, but some cases were brought against former Stasi secret police leaders by the united Germany.)

Also, unlike other revolutions, the ones in Central and Eastern Europe were mostly “top down” affairs, where many ordinary people felt they were forced into free markets and were made to accept democracy. This feeling varies, but is most commonplace in Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria.

Many Communists took advantage of privatisation to become rich. One example would be a man I know of who ran a collective farm. He went to the newly-re-established bank and asked for a loan. The manager asked what collateral he had, so he threw in the upcoming harvest. He got the loan, bought the land on the so-called “free market” and is now a multi-millionaire. There is just one problem. Collective farms were created by stealing people’s smallholdings and then forcing them to work there. And did they get their lands back? Some did, most didn’t; some got small cash payments. So, while behind the old Iron Curtain there might be a “free” market, it certainly isn’t a “fair” market.

It cannot be surprising then, that the new elite rigged things in such a way that they would elude justice when their countries became democracies.

Short-circuiting democracy in Hungary

In Hungary for instance, they created a kind of Trojan Horse for the future return of democracy. This came about in January 1989, when it was clear that there was a strong pressure for an end to the one-party state and little support from the “Comrades” in Moscow. They created a Constitutional Court with powers to prevent any legislation from passing if the court deemed it “unconstitutional”, thus putting the eleven-member body above the elected legislature. They therefore short-circuited the democratic process (unlike the UK or the US court system, which first allows laws to be promulgated, then challenged in court, all the way up the system.) The Constitutional Court replaces the Upper House of Parliament and so all the Communists had to do was get a majority in there and thus totally control the political process.

The first leader of this body was Dr László Sólyom, with whom I had a personal debate at the South Africa Foundation in the early 1990s on the issue of returning property “nationalised” (read: “stolen”). I was deeply shocked at his apparent lack of understanding of basic property rights and the arguments he gave to those present, many of whom had significant property, including homes, businesses and even factories taken and received a paltry sum. (What we didn’t know then was that these properties were “privatised” to former members of the Communist Party and their friends and are still in their hands today.)

I challenged him about the three basic liberties, life, liberty and property (blame Thomas Jefferson for the “pursuit of happiness”) and he professed ignorance of them, stressing the French Revolution’s “liberté, egalité, fraternité”.

It cannot be a surprise that Dr Sólyom found legislation calling on the government to bring people responsible for heinous crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, to book, quite “unconstitutional”. He even ruled that the Geneva Convention didn’t apply to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956!

The problem is not unique to Hungary. In the Czech Republic, prosecutors brought charges against a former minister, Lubomir Stroughal in 2001. The case was eventually dropped for lack of evidence. The LA Times explained part of the problem:

Prosecution of Communist-era officials has been difficult in the Czech Republic because the justice system operates on the principle that Communist laws were valid and, thus, human rights violations can be treated as crimes only if laws that were in force at the time were broken. Strougal is charged with blocking efforts in the 1960s to redress some of the worst offenses of the early Communist period.

The Platform of European Memory and Conscience

The Platform of European Memory and Conscience is a organisation within the EU set up to integrate the differing experience of Western and Eastern Europeans. The main difference being that, for the Western Europeans, the end of the Second World War meant the end of the killing, while in the East, it merely continued in a different form, but often with the very same individuals involved.

The Platform succeeded in announcing the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Memory and succeeded in making August 23 (the day of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) a Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Communism and Nazism. However, this was a “bridge” too far for the Westerners, who insisted on whitewashing the four million murdered by Lenin and changed the declaration to Victims of “Stalinism” (whatever that is) and Nazism.

The Platform has since published a Declaration on Crimes of Communism, which calls for an international tribunal to try Communist criminals and to compensate victims, in the light of the unsatisfactory performance of national governments, with the possible exception of Poland. (Incidentally, no-one out of three officials at the Platform responded to e-mails, nor did international lawyers/commentators in Hungary).

Thus, one reason for the lack of justice for victims of communism is the perpetrators and their influence. There is another cause, though. This is Western apathy towards victims.

Western apathy towards victims of communism

Sadly, there is very little empathy in the West for Communism’s victims. This is hard to understand for those of us whose families were affected, and is very hurtful. One wonders whether this is a lack of humanity on the part of the West.

Sober thought, however, would indicate that there are two main reasons: The success of cultural Marxism, and simple ignorance. People in Western Europe and North America learned about the Holocaust after a concerted effort by Jewish organisations to publish the horrific photographs, stories of survivors and the sheer size of the crimes committed.

Communism’s crimes are no less shocking, but there are very few photos available, very few documentaries in Western languages and no Hollywood movies about them. So the average Westerner basically looks at figures on paper of Stalin’s, Mao’s or other Communist murderers’ victims and shrugs.

One crime that is more typical of Communism than some other shocking crimes is mass rape. Just in 1944/45, the Red Army is estimated to have raped some three-to-four million women from Ukraine in the East to Vienna and Berlin in the West. The surviving women were not allowed to talk about the crime and it was only in the last few years that these elderly ladies could be persuaded to speak out. Most of the documentaries were aired in Germany, Austria or Hungary but were never shown on major channels in the West, such as the History Channel or National Geographic.

But mass rape by Chinese Communist forces is reported in Tibet, notably against Buddhist nuns, it is not unique to the Soviet military.

One cannot help wondering, where the feminists are in all this.

What can be done?

It would appear that the Platform of European Memory and Conscience, the US Museum of Communism, as well as the museums and institutes in the countries affected — such as the institution of the same name in Prague, the Polish Museum of Communism in Warsaw and the House of Terror in Budapest — are part of the answer. They need to continue to educate the thousands who visit. A quite comprehensive list is given here.

There are some memorials to the victims of the Gulag in Ukraine and Russia, but since the rise of Vladimir Putin, some have been taken down and some have been “re-scripted” to whitewash history.

In this, the liberal West and Putin’s regime are in agreement: All memory of Communisms’ crimes must be carefully edited out of all books, films and other media and quickly forgotten.

However, if school texts are changed to reflect the truth perhaps then the Discovery Channel and similar outlets will stop telling us the old lie that “Europe was liberated in 1945”.

In summary, victims and their families can only hope that the “enlightened West” and the “East” as well will drop their inhumane attitude towards what were, after all, the biggest crimes ever committed on earth, crimes which are not yet over, and embrace us as fellow human beings who have rights. If nothing else, the right to remember.

Christopher Szabo is a freelance journalist based in Pretoria, South Africa.

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