BBG Watch Commentary

Russian Service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) posted an announcement on its website that as of June 26, Radio Liberty Russian programs will no longer be carried through shortwave radio transmissions but will continue on the Internet. The loss of Radio Liberty’s Russian shortwave broadcasts will affect radio listeners in Russia as well as Russian speakers outside of the Russian Federation, including Russian occupied Crimea where many residents speak Russian. Officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of RFE/RL, bet that audiences will use the Internet without fear of being monitored or other forms of interference by the local authorities, such as blocking of websites. In the April 20, 2016 press release, the BBG condemned targeting of independent journalists in Crimea, including RFE/RL contributors.

71.3 % of Russia’s population has Internet access, which means that nearly 30 % does not. While no one denies that shortwave radio listenership has been in serious decline in recent years due to the expanding use of digital media, Broadcasting Board of Governors officials seem to be making highly optimistic assumptions about future behavior of Vladimir Putin. Critics also point out that after years of poor management the BBG has now an extremely small audience and impact in Russia, either on radio or the Internet. “This is yet another indication that the agency under the Broadcasting Board of Governors has no significant audience in Russia,” a former BBG staffer told BBG Watch. “They are not closing these facilities solely because people have migrated to new media. Regardless of the media/medium, the result is still the same: no significant audience in Russia,”

BBG and RFE/RL officials often cite misleading statistics, such as the monthly number of site visitors or the number of Facebook “Likes” for a single post, to hide the fact that its overall weekly audience in Russia for all media may be less than one or two percent. Some of the remaining independent Russian media outlets, such as Meduza and Rain TV, have much greater online reach in Russia than RFE/RL or VOA, which seems to suggest that the BBG program content is unappealing or otherwise inadequate. BBG audiences are higher in countries which allow local rebroadcasting of radio and TV programs. The BBG often has to pay local broadcasters for these rebroadcasts because program quality and their audience appeal are poor. Some VOA programs, however, such as the VOA Ukrainian Service and VOA Albanian Service TV news broadcasts, are popular in the target countries. This does not appear to be the case in Russia, which does not mean that high-quality analytical programs with high-quality intellectual content are not urgently needed. There has been a general decline in journalistic standards under the Broadcasting Board of Governors. RFE/RL has not had permanent leadership for over two years.

At present, the impact of BBG programs in Russia seems negligible. In a nationally representative survey of Russia, the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found “Russians’ attitudes toward the United States and President Barack Obama are extremely unfavorable and have grown sharply more negative in the last couple of years.” “Eighty-one percent of Russians have an unfavorable opinion of Obama, and only 2 percent have a favorable view of him,” AP reported.

BBG’s annual budget funded by U.S. taxpayers through congressional appropriations is approximately $777 million (FY 2017 Federal Budget Request).

While the shortwave Russian radio announcement was made by RFE/RL, radio transmission services are provided by the Broadcasting Board of Governors through its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). RFE/RL and BBG have so far posted no announcements in English on their plans to cut shortwave radio broadcasts in Russian to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and other Russian speaking regions, including Crimea, which Russia has illegally occupied.

Media freedom in the entire region has been in decline in recent years. The latest RFE/RL and BBG press releases are dated May 25, 2016 and deal with RFE/RL journalist Khadijah Ismayilova being released from prison in Azerbaijan. The RFE/RL announcement on the planned elimination of shortwave radio broadcasts was in Russian. It was posted on Radio Liberty’s Russian website.

In recent years, IBB has been significantly reducing shortwave radio broadcasting by RFE/RL and by other of its U.S. taxpayer-funded media entities, including the Voice of America (VOA). BBG officials point out that in the era of Internet and digital media, shortwave radio listenership has been in steep decline worldwide, including Russia. In 2008, IBB cut VOA Russian shortwave radio and live satellite television transmissions shortly before Russia invaded and occupied parts of Georgia.

While RFE/RL websites remain vulnerable to being blocked at any time by the Kremlin, the Russian authorities still allow RFE/RL to operate a large news bureau in Moscow which provides news reports and other programming mostly for Radio Liberty’s Russian Service. This may account for the optimism among BBG officials. They apparently assume that President Putin will not dare to interfere with the Internet and try to block RFE/RL websites in Russia. However, Kremlin controlled Russian TV channel NTV produced a propaganda hit piece on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) which was broadcast on March 25, 2016. NTV report linked legitimate physical security measures at RFE/RL to vague accusations of allegedly hidden activities against Russia in carrying out the U.S. government’s agenda. The Russian propaganda TV program also alleged misappropriation of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau. RFE/RL strongly denied these charges and in the March 18, 2016 press release condemned pressure tactics against RFE/RL bureau in Moscow. BBG and RFE/RL officials must assume that the Russian authorities will not expand these pressure tactics to include blocking of RFE/RL and VOA websites in Russia.

BBG officials claim that the money spent on shortwave can be better used to create new programs and expand digital program delivery options, but critics point out that in recent years millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayers’ funds have been wasted mostly on the BBG and IBB bureaucracy in Washington, which kept expanding and protected its jobs while cutting radio broadcasts, other programs and programming positions.

New CEO John Lansing has been on the job at the Broadcasting Board of Governors since September 2015. He has promised management reforms and expansion of digital media outreach. Critics say that instead of depriving the most vulnerable groups abroad of safe radio program delivery and an inexpensive option of getting uncensored news and commentary through radio, BBG officials should achieve savings and expand digital media by drastically cutting their own bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.

The RFE/RL announcement says that 24/7 RFE/RL radio transmissions in Russian will continue online and can be heard through the RFE/RL website. Radio Liberty’s Russian audio can also be heard 24/7 on two satellites, Hot Bird and AsiaSat, according to the same RFE/RL announcement.

So far, the Russian government has not been regularly blocking RFE/RL websites in Russia, but recently Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnxdzor, briefly blocked and then unblocked RFE/RL’s news website Krym.Realii (Crimea.Realities) in Russia and Moscow-annexed Crimea.

Roskomnxdzor’s spokesman said that the Russian authorities later unblocked Krym.Realii (“Crimea.Realities”) after RFE/RL’s Crimean news desk complied with a request by Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office to remove from the site “materials that contain illegal information.”

RFE/RL’s Crimean desk said, however, that it removed no content from the site in response to the May 12 blocking of its website by Russian Internet providers.

RFE/RL’s Crimean desk chief Volodymyr Prytula said that “we received no demands from Roskomnadzor calling for the removal of any kind of content. So we removed no content.”

While all shortwave Radio Liberty transmissions in Russian are to end on July 26, according to RFE/RL’s announcement, Radio Liberty Russian Service will continue to use 1386 kHz medium wave radio frequency from midnight to 6 AM and from 9 PM to to 10 PM Moscow time. This frequency can only be heard in some parts of European Russia.

Radio Liberty (originally named Radio Liberation) began shortwave broadcasting to Russia on March 1, 1953.

See RFE/RL announcement (in Russian only) on the planned elimination of Radio Liberty’s shortwave radio transmissions in Russian.

Радио Свобода 26 июня прекращает вещание на коротких волнах: Круглосуточное вещание в Интернете сохраняется, RFE/RL Radio Liberty Russian Service, May 31, 2016


See RFE/RL video on the blocking of its news website for Crimea: