Guest Commentary

By Ted Lipien

I noticed through an online search of their news websites that neither the Voice of America’s (VOA) Russian and English services, nor the Russian Service of Radio Liberty (RL) — VOA’s Golos Ameriki, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Radio Svoboda and joint RFE/RL and VOA Current Time TV websites — reported on a recent controversy over the proposed removal of the Katyn Massacre Monument in Jersey City, the second-most-populous city in the U.S. state of New Jersey. If they did report on it somewhere online, such a report could not be easily found.

The Jersey City Katyn Monument controversy was a perfectly legitimate U.S. news story with multiple international angles, including Polish and Russian historical and current political themes, to which AP, The New York Times and other U.S. and foreign media devoted several articles over a one week period. It would have been a great topic for VOA to do a news report on civil society and ethnic community actions in the United States and to show some of the history of Stalinist crimes that the current Russian government and President Vladimir Putin are trying hard to hide from the Russians.

The New York Times, not exactly a provincial newspaper, posted in the last several days seven separate reports, most from AP and one by its own reporter, on the Katyn Massacre Monument controversy. The Jersey City mayor had wanted to move the monument for redeveloping the area and made controversial remarks how the monument disturbed young children and how some of his critics among politicians in Poland were dangerous nationalists. The Polish-American community went to court to stop the removal. According to last reports, a compromise appears to have been reached between the mayor and his critics. The monument will be moved but only a short distance from its original site.

The first AP reports on the controversy were posted by New York Times on May 8; the latest ones from AP appeared on the New York Times website on May 14: “Plans Announced for Moving Statue Marking Massacre of Poles” and “The Latest: Plan to Move Polish Memorial Ignites Protest.” A report by New York Times‘ own correspondent appeared in print on May 11: “Jersey City Argues Over a Statue, and Politicians in Poland Weigh In.”

On May 14, Co-Chairs of the Congressional Poland Caucus, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) and Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04) released the following statement, which did not address the New Jersey controversy but marked the anniversary of the Katyn murders which happened in April and May 1940:

“As co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Poland Caucus, we deeply value the importance of remembering Poland’s historical struggle for liberty. This spring, we commemorate the 78th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre, and honor the lives of around 20,000 Polish officers, soldiers, and other innocents murdered at the hands of the Soviet secret police at Katyn forest and other sites. The truth of this event was covered up far too long by the Soviet propaganda machine, which makes remembering this event so important today.
“Tragically, this event led to the murder of many nationalities, and continues to affect many communities today across the United States and the world. As Dr. Timothy Snyder notes in his book Bloodlands, “Poland was a multinational state, with a multinational officer corps, and so many of the dead were Jews, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. Some eight percent of the victims were Jews…”
“Through honoring the victims of Katyn, we are showing that these lives were not lost in vain, and that we must pursue historical truth. On this anniversary, let communities of all heritage come together in dialogue to pay respect to this solemn occasion so that the wounds may continue to heal.”

Why would VOA and RFE/RL ignore such a U.S. news story with a Soviet-Russian and Polish angle which was covered extensively among others by The New York Times is hard to explain. Lack of effective leadership and oversight may have something to do with it, but other subtle and less detectable factors may also play a role.

The Voice of America had the unfortunate history of first supporting and spreading the Soviet Katyn propaganda lie through its pro-Soviet broadcasts during World War II and later trying to censor or limit news about the Soviet massacre of Polish prisoners until pressure from Congress forced VOA to report on it more fully starting in the early 1950s, with some censorship by VOA’s management continuing into the 1970s and stopping completely during the Ronald Reagan administration.

To their great credit, RFE and RL were always reporting fully on this topic during the Cold War. But in the last few years I have noticed a significant drop in VOA’s and RL’s Russian services’ interest in news stories related to Soviet history. This seems to coincide with the Russian government’s increased legal efforts, also undertaken in the last several years, to punish journalists and scholars who post history-related news reports and publish historical research the Russian authorities don’t like.

“In today’s Russia, stating that Stalin and Hitler joined forces to attack Poland, carve up Eastern Europe, and start World War II in 1939 is illegal,” Gabriele Woidelko, director of the “Russia in Europe” program at the Körber Foundation in Hamburg, wrote in an article of the Carnegie Europe site. The analyst pointed out that in July 2016, the blogger Vladimir Luzgin was fined 200, 000 Rubles by the Perm District Court for making such a statement. She noted that “In September 2016, the Russian Supreme Court upheld the conviction arguing that it contributed to the ‘rehabilitation of National Socialism’.” This means promoting fascism. Such an accusation can have a powerful impact. That is how the Russian authorities under President Putin control media in Russia, using intimidation rather than mass arrests of opposition activists and a complete ban on independent journalism as it was done during the Soviet times. The current method combined with maintaining control over most popular mass media and the use of nationalistic propaganda is more effective in the Internet era while RFE/RL and VOA became much less effective.

Is it a coincidence or are VOA and RFE/RL now more reluctant to touch these sensitive Soviet history topics than during the Cold War because their reporters could be prosecuted in Russia for insulting the Russian state? They either live there with their families, own property or visit frequently.

To its credit, RFE/RL English-language service produced last month an informative but still somewhat incomplete video report on the anniversary of the 1940 Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish military prisoners of war. I could not, however, find any evidence through online searches that Radio Liberty, Voice of America, or “Current Time” had used that video in Russian. I praised the producers of the RFE/RL English-language video report, “Katyn: The Massacre Stalin Tried To Blame On The Nazis,” for their effort, but I noted that it also failed to point out a few sensitive points with regard to the role played by parts of the Roosevelt administration and the wartime Voice of America in covering up the Katyn crime and other Soviet atrocities. One could ask what is the target audience for such RFE/RL reports in English if they fail to address fully controversies in U.S. history?

Why wouldn’t Radio Liberty’s Russian Service post now this RFE/RL English-language video in Russian translation on its website and on social media sites or produce its own enhanced report? A search of the RFE/RL-VOA’s “Current Time” YouTube channel does not show any documentary or news videos specifically devoted to the Katyn Massacre and only two in the last two years with a mention of the genocidal crime.

It also seems strange to me that President Putin does not seem to mind that RFE/RL has a large news bureau in Moscow and employs many Russian citizens. He obviously wants RT to operate freely in the West and does not see Radio Liberty and the Voice of America as a serious threat, as the Soviets did during the Cold War when Radio Liberty journalists could not show their faces on Soviet territory and VOA reporters were rarely given work or private visas to enter the Soviet Union, and most of the time were also banned and their broadcasts jammed. Putin is not afraid of Radio Liberty Russian Service or “Current Time” because perhaps he has no reason to be afraid.

There has been also a VOA bureau in Moscow for many years, and I’m told that some VOA Russian Service reporters travel to Russia using their Russian passports as dual Russian and American citizens. There is nothing illegal about it under U.S. law, but they are all subject to the Russian Federation laws when they are working there or visiting Russia.

Why isn’t President Putin afraid of the Voice of America and Radio Liberty as we seem to be afraid of Russia’s media and propaganda outreach in the United States?

Is it because some of the bravest Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty investigative journalists, including its former star reporter Khadija Ismailova and Dr. Majid Mohammadi who is the author of more than three dozen books on Iran, have been pushed out by RFE/RL’s senior management or quit in recent years? Is it because VOA’s senior management in the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has punished a group of five VOA Mandarin Service journalists who wanted to expose corruption within China’s communist government but were accused by VOA director of violating good journalistic practices and suspended? Is it because some past and current members of the BBG Board have had outside business interests in Russia and China?

Again, there is nothing illegal about doing business in Russia and China, but is it good U.S. government policy to have such individuals in charge of American media outreach to such countries? That wasn’t the case during the Cold War. It would have been unthinkable to have Armand Hammer with his personal and family business interests in the Soviet Union to be in charge of the Voice of America. Former political prisoner in Azerbaijan, arrested for her work at RFE/RL, and 2016 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize winner Khadija Ismayilova wrote on Facebook, “I resigned from this organization [RFE/RL] because they didn’t hesitate to fire the best journalists.” [Emphasis added.] She added, “I can’t understand why they are still naming me as their contributor in some stories, but I want to make it clear. I don’t work for RFE/RL anymore.”

At the very least, by reporting on the Jersey City Katyn Monument controversy the Voice of America could have shown that some Americans will oppose efforts to erase history. In 1952, a bipartisan committee of the House of Representatives, the Madden Committee which investigated the Katyn Massacre, concluded that “Testimony before this committee likewise proves that the Voice of America—successor to the Office of War Information—had failed to fully utilize available information concerning the Katyn massacre until the creation of this committee in 1951.”[ref]The Katyn Forest Massacre. Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre pursuant to H. Res. 390 and H. Res. 539, Eighty-Second Congress, a resolution to authorize the investigation of the mass murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952), accessed October 26, 2017,[/ref]

Pressure from Congress and public opinion works. The Voice of America management never apologized to the families of the murdered Polish officers for helping to spread Soviet fake news propaganda lies about the fate of their sons, husbands and fathers but, as a result of criticism in Congress, VOA eventually changed its approach to covering the Katyn story and later received praise for it from grateful radio listeners in communist-ruled Poland. This change in management policy was also forced by complaints from anti-communist VOA broadcasters, including Polish hero of anti-Nazi resistance Zofia Korbońska. She and others like her were hired after the war to replace pro-Soviet VOA Polish Service broadcasters who were active during the war years. One of them was Polish communist Stefan Arski, aka Artur Salman, who went back to Poland after the war and for several decades produced anti-American propaganda for the communist regime in Warsaw. Polish-American organizations protested as well during the early years of VOA’s existence.

Halina Kozłowska, whose father Jerzy Kismanowski was one of the Polish officers murdered 1940 by the Soviet NKVD at Katyn on the orders of Stalin and the Soviet Politburo, told Teresa Kaczorowska for her book Children of the Katyn Massacre abridged from the original Polish Kiedy Jesteście, miej boli… (2003):

Halina says as she recalls the terror-filled mood of the Stalin times. Everyone would listen, secretly, despite the prohibition, to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe…” It was such a small thing, a hope that someone was with us, that they wanted to do good for us,” she recalls.[ref]Teresa Kaczorowska, Children of the Katyn Massacre (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006) 182.[/ref]

The Voice of America needs to rediscover history, including its own history, to know how to respond effectively to Russian propaganda and media manipulation. This is even more important now than during the Cold War because President Putin and Russian propagandists are much more sophisticated in controlling the media and spreading disinformation than the Soviet leaders were at any time. I recently read on the Voice of America website a news report written by a “VOA expert” in which American communist Angela Davis was presented as a defender of rights of women and trade unionists. Her communist affiliations and the support she gave and received from the Soviet Union or the fact that she had refused to intercede on behalf of imprisoned East European human rights activists and Solidarity trade union movement were not mentioned in the VOA report. There will be more such reporting and fewer effective challenges to clever Putin propaganda if nothing is done to first reform and then strengthen the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and their federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Featured Image: A Soviet era propaganda poster against Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe accusing them of “anti-Sovietism.” Presented with the help of generous gifts from VOA broadcasters.

Featured Image: A Soviet era propaganda poster against the Voice of America and other U.S. media accusing them of “anti-Sovietism.” Presented with the help of generous gift from VOA broadcasters.

ALSO SEE: Young Russians Know Little of 1990s and View Putin as Stalin’s Immediate Successor, New Research Shows. By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia, May 14, 2018.


Disclosure: Ted Lipien was VOA acting associate director in charge of central news programs before his retirement in 2006. In the 1970s, he worked as a broadcaster in the VOA Polish Service and was a reporter and service chief in the 1980s during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy in Poland. He is one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch whose volunteers monitor management and performance of taxpayer-funded Voice of America and other U.S. government-run media operations within the Broadcasting Board of Governors.