BBG Watch Commentary

A State Department Russian Affairs Political Officer Timothy Nelson said in a public forum that estimated 60 to 80% of funding for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda media channels comes not from the Russian government but from spending on advertising in Russian media by Western businesses for which Russia is still an attractive market. State Department representative noted that Russian state media are the best vehicle for advertising for these Western companies despite the imposition of sanctions against Moscow after the Russian annexation of Crimea.

While the State Department representative did not mention this, ironically, some of the advertising spending which ends up supporting Putin’s propaganda machine may have come from U.S. corporations headed by executives who also serve as members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, U.S. federal agency with $777 million budget (FY 2017) which funds and oversees the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and other U.S. taxpayer-supported overseas broadcasters.

Timothy Nelson was speaking last week at a conference at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC organized by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), and in cooperation with the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

This video summary was produced by BBG Watch from the full video posted online by the Atlantic Council.

TIMOTHY NELSON, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: “I would say probably 60 to 80 percent of funding is Western businesses coming into Russia to fund any of the major propaganda channels.”

Even Russia experts who participated in the Atlantic Council’s panel discussion “The Illiberal Turn and Media Freedom,” which was held in Washington D.C. on October 13, seemed surprised that Russian state propaganda is supported to such a large extent by funding gained from Western companies doing business in Russia. But the panel’s moderator, Francisak Viachorka, Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist from Belarus also remarked that Moscow offices of Western social media companies, such as Facebook or Google, very often supported pro-Russian activists and pro-Russian propaganda while blocking accounts of Ukrainian social media activists.

State Department diplomat Timothy Nelson posed a question to the panelists how they would respond to and counter such a high level of Western advertising investment in Putin’s propaganda channels. The panelists: Jill Dougherty, former CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent in Russia, Aleks Dardeli, Vice President of IREX, and Zselyke Csaky, Senior Researcher for Nations in Transit at Freedom House, pointed out that both the Russian government and Russian businesses also invest heavily in the Russian propaganda media through advertising, but they did not dispute the State Department expert’s figures. They also pointed out that due to sanctions and economic downturn in Russia, such Russian investment is now smaller than before.

When pressed by the moderator Francisak Viachorka, Timothy Nelson estimated the amount of funding Russian propaganda gets from revenues received from advertising by Western companies doing business in Russia to be between 60 and 80 percent.

The panelists had various ideas how the United States should respond to Russian propaganda, but they did not say that media programs run by what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the “practically defunct” Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is in charge of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, have much relevance, impact or effectiveness. Not counting the panel’s moderator who is a RFE/RL employee and also made other excellent comments, the panelists themselves did not mention these VOA and Radio Liberty programs at all in any positive way.

Jill Dougherty who very early in her media career worked briefly for the Voice of America Russian Service said in response to a question what the United States government should do about Russian propaganda that “the answer usually falls into old-think of should we give more money to VOA, should we give more money to RFE/RL?”

The “old-think” reference was quite telling. Ms. Dougherty suggested that it would be more productive to look “at the media landscape the way it is, not the way it was 25 years ago, or even thirty years ago, and trying to figure out different ways of getting the citizens educated to consume [information critically].” She also commented earlier on the excellent technical and entertainment quality of some of the Russian-languge Russian state television programs which contain disinformation.

The same themes of the importance of supporting local independent media, which panelists agreed have more credibility with local audiences than any outside media, and supporting education in modern history and critical consumption of news, were also voiced at another Atlantic Council panel on the same day. Experts voicing these ideas were Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin, Senior Fellow, Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council and former RFE/RL president; Dr. Ivan Stefan, Member of the European Parliament from Slovakia; Thomas Melia, Assistant Administrator, USAID; and others.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors was not mentioned at all by the participants of the second panel, “The Illiberal Turn?: Reasserting Democratic Values in Central and Eastern Europe, and there was no discussion of any significant role for the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in the region by non-BBG participants. Brian Whitmore, who is an experienced and knowledgeable RFE/RL analyst, was the only panelist who made any references to BBG programs.

Jill Dougherty noted that people “are not cut off anymore.” “If you’re in Moscow or in any of these countries, you are probably able to get almost all the information you want,” she observed. The panelists seemed to agree that, if anything, there is too much information combined with disinformation, which makes news consumers distrustful of all media. This in turn plays into Putin’s hands and is useful to Russian propaganda, many of the panelists observed, because ordinary people are tuning out and are not participating in civil society.

Aleks Dardeli, Vice President of IREX, suggested that Western investors who value political stability may want to invest in local independent media in Russia to prevent political and financial destabilization that unchallenged Russian state propaganda may produce.

Good quality of information is one of the lifelines of democracy, Dardeli observed. Investment in good information is investment in good governance and non-volatility, which should appeal particularly to investment funds. Vladimir Putin, however, would not allow such independent media companies to be based in Russia. They would have be set up in neighboring countries. Some like MEDUZA, which is based in Latvia, have been highly successful online in Russia and have much greater online traffic and audience engagement than VOA or RFE/RL’s Radio Liberty.

SEE: BBG Governor Confirms Inadequacy of U.S. BBG Media in Countering Putin Propaganda, BBG Watch, June 17, 2016.

Aleks Dardeli praised a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Senators Chris Murphy and Rob Portman which calls for the creation of a U.S. interagency “Center for Information Analysis and Response” and for promoting independent media based in the region.

Zselyke Csaky, Senior Researcher of Nations in Transit at Freedom House stressed the importance of support for citizen reporters who are reporting on local stories that are relevant to people’s lives. “We have to invest in it, and we have forgotten that and have focused on bigger projects,” Ms. Csaky added.

While the Broadcasting Board of Governors was embarrassingly ignored by the panels, despite RFE/RL’s co-sponsorship of the Atlantic Council conference, the comment of State Department expert Timothy Nelson about Western advertising spending being used to fund Putin’s propaganda media calls attention to the disturbing fact that some of the members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, both past and present, are working for private American corporations and companies which do business in Russia. Some of these private sector executives who are also U.S. government officials have tried to work on private business deals while visiting Russia in their official BBG capacity. Over the years and more recently, they have also put in charge of the BBG agency former private media sector managers who lack experience in international affairs, international media, intercultural communications, U.S. foreign policy and U.S. public diplomacy.

A controversial visit to Moscow of BBG Chairman Jeff Shell in a dubious private and U.S. government official capacity, which resulted in his expulsion from Russia in July, was given quite differing accounts from the State Department spokesman Mark Toner and from BBG CEO and Director John Lansing and the Voice of America English News. It appears that inexperienced BBG executives were hoping to meet Putin officials at a party in Moscow. One of the high-level BBG officials reportedly told incredulous RFE/RL journalists that until a few years ago Russia was almost a democracy.

No wonder that the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its programs are no longer a topic for any serious discussion at Washington conferences or in U.S. media reports about countering Russian propaganda. Some of the Atlantic Council panes’ members and guests observed that the younger generation of Europeans and Americans is not familiar with modern history. It was an excellent observation. Unfortunately, it also applies to some of the younger journalists, editors, and indeed also executives in charge of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

The mismanaged agency lacks vision, expertise and leadership, while VOA and sometimes even RFE/RL post reports that repeat and reinforce Kremlin propaganda without any challenge because many younger reporters lack experience, training and a sense of direction that only competent management can provide.

Full Atlantic Council Video: The Illiberal Turn and Media Freedom