BBG Watch Commentary

Someone at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), whose salary is paid for by U.S. taxpayers “to promote democratic values and institutions by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established” (RFE/RL mission statement) and “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy” (Broadcasting Board of Governors mission statement), went into trouble of posting 17 wire agency photographs from North Korea and to write short commentaries to show how North Korean economy is experiencing a “mini boom.” This RFE/RL photo gallery includes only two or three comments that could be described as mildly negative toward the North Korean regime. Overall, it appears to be a propaganda cheer for North Korea–all at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.

As one international media expert observed, North Korea “is not even in the region [of RFE/RL operations], and moreover, this is all for the regime’s show.” We could not agree more.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency which oversees Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, must start paying attention to RFE/RL deteriorating media reporting performance on behalf of U.S. taxpayers. After four days online, this North Korean propaganda collage by RFE/RL is showing only one Facebook “Share.” Considering its one-sided propaganda content, this may be good news, but the BBG should be concerned also about limited audience engagement for all English-language news reports from RFE/RL. Some of it is substandard, especially when compared to high quality analyses produced by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War and even later when the entity was better managed than it is now.

Radio Free Asia (RFA), another BBG entity which does broadcast into North Korea, would have never fallen in such a way for North Korean propaganda, but it seems that RFE/RL failed to consult their colleagues at RFA who are experts on the region. Radio Free Asia journalists are doing an excellent job of reporting about North Korea.

At the same time, the Voice of America (VOA), another media entity overseen by the BBG, has been falling for North Korean propaganda in an even bigger way than RFE/RL and repeating North Korean propaganda lies quite frequently in recent years.

The BBG has a new executive in charge, John Lansing, but his ability to oversee RFE/RL is limited. VOA also now has new director, Amanda Bennett. The last RFE/RL president and CEO, Kevin Klose, had departed over two years ago. RFE/RL has been drifting ever since. It should be pointed out that RFE/RL’s reporting on countries like Russia is still superior to that of VOA reporting, but it is getting worse at times or at least not showing any signs of permanent improvement in a very critical region for the United States.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty is much needed at this time and it should perform much better. The same is true for the Voice of America.





Pyongyang’s Building Boom | Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)

RFE/RL: “1. The Pyongyang skyline is growing — and not only with the vanity projects that represent the North Korean state. Despite sanctions and economic isolation, the capital is in the midst of a ‘mini boom’.”
RFE/RL: “2. An overview of Pyongyang. North Korea spends around a third of national income on its military, with little left over for civilian infrastructure.”
RFE/RL: 3. “But in recent months the Pyongyang skyline has been looking rather.. futuristic. This handout photo of high-rise buildings and apartment blocks was released in October 2015.”
RFE/RL: “4. The Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang, completed in 2015. The atom-shaped structure is run on solar, geothermal, and “other natural energies.”
RFE/RL: “5. A model of a rocket is the centerpiece of the Sci-Tech Complex. According to a North Korean press release the complex will serve as an e-library for work produced by the country’s scientists.”
RFE/RL: “6. In the summer of 2015, the new terminal of Pyongyang’s airport was opened to much (carefully choreographed) fanfare.”
RFE/RL: “7. Inside, the style is sleek…”
RFE/RL: “8. …yet Soviet. Some analysts put North Korea’s mini-boom down to increased trade with China, while others believe the country has been selling off its gold reserves.”
RFE/RL: “9. Laborers at work on a construction site in central Pyongyang. As well as government spending, much of the economic activity in the capital is reportedly entrepreneurial.”
RFE/RL: “10. Decaying apartment blocks in Pyongyang. According to a report in the Guardian, many North Koreans rely on illicit trade to feed their families.”
RFE/RL: “11. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, here strolling among freshly completed apartment blocks, has slipped some reforms into his nation’s moribund economy.”
RFE/RL: “12. A worker photographed during a media tour of an Electric Cable Factory. Factories in the capital which produce more than their quota can now sell the excess production, offer workers bonuses, or reinvest the money.”
RFE/RL: “13. A guide photographed near the Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang. There is also money to be made from state entities issuing permits for business people to operate on their behalf, often in completely unrelated industries. A state-run school factory, for example, might sell an entrepreneur the permit to open a mine.”
RFE/RL: “14. Dancers in Pyongyang on April 11, 2016, the fourth anniversary of supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s assumption of North Korea’s top post.”
RFE/RL: “15. Pyongyang remains a gloomy place by night.”
RFE/RL: “16. But morning reveals a skyline that is changing relatively quickly.”
RFE/RL: “17. Statues of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-il look over a city which is undergoing rapid physical change, but it’s unlikely political change will follow any time soon.”


BBG Watch Commentary

North Korea is vibrant and full of economic activity is the message from U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in a recently posted photo gallery. It has also been a message in recent years from another U.S. taxpayer funded international media outlet, the Voice of America (VOA). Both RFE/RL and VOA are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which since September 2015 has new CEO John Lansing. New VOA director, Amanda Bennett, has been appointed a few weeks ago. RFE/RL has been without permanent leadership for over two years.

The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should be paying RFE/RL money to offset the cost of its media operation to U.S. taxpayers. Getting a North Korean propaganda message repeated by American-funded and American-overseen Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty should not be free.

Seriously, RFE/RL is in a midst of a major leadership and management crisis. It is far more disturbing that RFE/RL increasingly falls from time to time for President Putin’s aggressive propaganda, sometimes repeating its themes without challenging them or presenting countervailing views.

It must be noted that RFE/RL still has some outstanding reporters and content that does in fact challenge Kremlin propaganda. However, numbers of questionable RFE/RL web and social media postings, especially by some members of its English language news web team, keep growing.

The Voice of America has been repeating North Korean propaganda without proper balance for quite some time.

VOA and North Korea 2014: VOA posts North Korean lie without any challenge as Exclusive

VOA News Report, Dec. 4, 2014

Voice of America Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 4.48 PM ET. Voice of America did not mention this earlier "Exclusive"  VOA news when reporting on President Obama's Friday's comments on the North Korean cyber attack on Sony.
Voice of America Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 4.48 PM ET. Voice of America did not mention this earlier “Exclusive” VOA news when reporting on President Obama’s Friday’s comments on the North Korean cyber attack on Sony.

VOA News Report, Dec. 19, 2014

Voice of America Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 4.56 PM ET
Voice of America Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 4.56 PM ET

In reporting Friday on U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement that U.S will respond “proportionally” to the cyberattack on Sony Pictures blamed on North Korea, U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) did not mention its earlier report, which VOA touted as “exclusive,” that a North Korean diplomat whom VOA had interviewed in New York denied his government’s responsibility for the Sony hacking incident.

With FBI and President Obama confirming previous expert opinions of North Korea’s involvement in the cyber attack on Sony, Voice of America’s earlier unquestioning presentation of North Korea’s claim of innocence looks more embarrassing than ever.

Oscar-winner actor George Clooney, while not referring specifically to Voice of America, said in an interview with DEADLINE that the media failed to do its job and that executives in Hollywood “were so fearful to place themselves in the cross hairs of hackers that they all refused to sign a simple petition of support [for Sony Pictures] that Clooney and his agent, CAA’s Bryan Lourd, circulated to the top people in film, TV, records and other areas.”

“A good portion of the press abdicated its real duty. They played the fiddle while Rome burned. There was a real story going on. With just a little bit of work, you could have found out that it wasn’t just probably North Korea; it was North Korea,” George Clooney said.

Voice of America made a major contribution to disinformation by releasing a completely unsupported North Korean denial without any questions asked. The denial was picked up from Voice of America by several U.S. media outlets, although to their credit most of them included information from cyber experts challenging the North Korean regime’s claim that was completely missing in the original “exclusive” VOA report which violated the VOA Charter and the VOA Journalistic Code. This was one of many such incidents at the Voice of America in recent years under its current leadership. For some of them, VOA Director David Ensor had to apologize to a foreign government and a leading Russian opposition leader.

VOA and North Korea 2011: Criticism of 2011 press release and VOA video describing Pyongyang as a vibrant city

VOAs-Video-from-North-KoreaBBG Watch, an independent website run by former and current Broadcasting Board of Governors employees, wonders who signed off on the press release on the BBG official website,, quoting a Voice of America journalist who just completed a rare reporting assignment to North Korea, as saying that the country’s capital city Pyongyang is “vibrant and busy with activity.”

“Relative to what?” — BBG Watch wonders — “the Gulag? What are they smoking, or have we missed the opening of a new shopping mall with chic boutiques in downtown Pyongyang? Apparently, we did,” says BBG Watch. The VOA press release, issued earlier, even has a photo of a well-stocked store. Keep in mind that North Korea has one of the most repressive regimes in the world, but you wouldn’t know it reading the press release on the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ website. At the BBG they have not yet heard of a Potyomkin village, says BBG Watch.

Link to the video on YouTube.

A VOA correspondent report from Pyongyang includes a video which is devoted largely to repeating North Korean anti-American propaganda claims with almost no attempt to counter any of them in any substantive way. The video ends with a saleswoman dancing for the VOA reporter in a modern-looking store in Pyongyang.