BBG Watch Commentary

ASP LogoLívia Pontes Fialho, a policy researcher intern at the American Security Project, analyzes in the ASP FLASHPOINT BLOG recent changes in distribution and content of U.S. taxpayer-funded Radio Liberty programs for Russia.

She correctly points out that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has been “traditionally associated with good journalism by producing objective news.” She then observes:

“In the wake of recent measures taken by Vladimir Putin’s government, such as the ban on USAID’s operations in the country, and the enforcement of a media law restricting foreign ownership of broadcast outlets, Radio Liberty has shifted its strategy significantly. In the Moscow office, staff was reduced to almost half as RL has begun to emphasize digital platforms instead of air-waves to spread its content.”

Lívia Pontes Fialho’s analysis focuses largely on changes in program delivery and distribution of Radio Liberty. She also briefly alludes to the resulting changes in program profile and content, which–as BBG Watch has often pointed out–are even more significant and damaging for Radio Liberty. There is a completely erroneous impression created by the former RFE/RL management team that the Russian Service was not doing or was not capable of doing digital media. Not only the fired team had a highly successful multimedia platform with outstanding news content, it also had some of the best, award-winning multimedia professionals in Russia. Even after they were forced out of Radio Liberty, they received awards for their previous online Radio Liberty reporting.

In her article, Lívia Pontes Fialho does not address personnel changes after the mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow. BBG Watch has pointed out before that by replacing much of the serious political and civic journalism with the lowest common denominator journalism, the previous RFE/RL management team and the current Russian Service director Masha Gessen have nearly destroyed Radio Liberty’s brand and reputation in Russia and in other countries.

It is also important to point out that this happened before the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency overseeing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, named Kevin Klose, a distinguished journalist, to be acting president of RFE/RL. He will no doubt try to repair the damage and was directed to do so by the BBG.

Also in her short but insightful article, Lívia Pontes Fialho writes about the damage to Radio Liberty’s reputation and effectiveness in Russia, but she does not focus specifically how the damage is compounded by the current boycott of Radio Liberty by nearly all leading Russian human rights and political opposition leaders. BBG Watch has been reporting that these prominent Russian democrats do not want to have anything to do with Radio Liberty after the mass dismissal of journalists and the transformation of programming since Masha Gessen took over in October 2012. Radio Liberty, also known now in Russia as Radio Gessen, has lost online visitors to its website and counts among its critics Mikhail Gorbachev and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Lyudmila Alexeeva.

Lívia Pontes Fialho points to the change in program delivery platforms as perhaps the main cause of damage to Radio Liberty’s brand. Her observation is correct if seen in the larger context of the new programming philosophy adopted by the previous RFE/RL top management and Masha Gessen.

“the firing of journalists by the radio’s management has been met with protest and hurt the station’s credibility. The attempt to regain relevance is legitimate but doing so, using online tools, without taking into account the effects on a well-regarded brand and on the actual audience may backfire instead.”

BBG Watch has been reporting that while there was a change in program delivery of Radio Liberty (the loss of the AM frequency in Moscow and the loss of outstanding programs produced by the fired journalists), the dismissed Radio Liberty team already had a highly successful website and was using all digital formats far better than the new team, which–according to Russian media article–lacks substantive experience in both news reporting and using multimedia platforms.

Illustration for Radio Liberty Russian Service story on topless bars and online romance
Illustration for Radio Liberty Russian Service story on topless bars and online romance

Lívia Pontes Fialho does note the negative fallout form the dismissal of Radio Liberty journalists in Moscow. What in fact also destroyed Radio Liberty’s brand and reputation was not only the loss of these multimedia professionals but the loss of reports and analyses they produced not only for radio but also for the web and replacing them and their well-regarded content with soft stories and even some that can only be described as tabloid journalism.

It is important to note that the new RFE/RL acting president Kevin Klose, who assumed his position on January 26, said that he supports “fact-based, quality, reliable, independent, verifiable journalism.” Hopefully, he will soon address some of the problems highlighted in Lívia Pontes Fialho’s excellent analysis.

BBG Watch would like to point out that it is refreshing and encouraging at the same time to see a young foreign journalist from Brazil, working for a prestigious Washington think tank, which has John Kerry, the new Secretary of State and the newest BBG member, on its board of directors, correctly identifying and analyzing U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy issues in Russia far better than some of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) senior managers.

These high-level government bureaucrats had allowed the Radio Liberty crisis to develop and ignored it for months until they were forced to act by concerned BBG governors. Not only did they not warn BBG members that there was something fundamentally wrong with the situation of Russia, but some of them even tried to get these presidential appointees to publicly endorse discredited RFE/RL managers. Fortunately, BBG members did not take their advice and instead took note of protests and appeals from Gorbachev, Alexeeva, other Russian democratic politicians and human rights leaders, as well as heads of U.S. human rights and media freedom NGOs.

READ MORE: Public Diplomacy and Online Platforms: Radio Liberty’s Case – By Lívia Pontes Fialho – FLASHPOINT BLOG, American Security Project, February 6, 2013

Lívia Pontes Fialho, the author of the article for American Security Project’s FLASHPOINT BLOG, is an ASP intern and an M.A. candidate in International Communication at American University’s School of International Service. Her research interests are primarily public diplomacy, discourse and intercultural relations. Originally from Brazil, she holds a B.A. in Communication and Journalism. She has worked in public relations and as a reporter for Portuguese and English-language publications.

The American Security Project (ASP) is a non-profit, non-partisan public policy and research organization based in Washington, D.C. Its board of directors is chaired by former Senator Gary Hart and includes Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense nominee Senator Chuck Hagel.