BBG Watch Commentary

The American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1812, a union representing federal employees of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), has posted on its website an editorial commenting on the program placement strategy and the overall program delivery strategy of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and Voice of America (VOA) executives.

We agree with AFGE Local 1812 that the agency’s top managers have for years made extremely bad strategic decisions and choices with regard to Russia and several other countries. They have chosen to ignore inconvenient facts, such as that certain kind of local program placement in certain countries — Russia and China being prime examples — requires self-censorship by VOA journalists, which is against the VOA Charter, and thus against U.S. law.

No self-censorship or no censorship by the receiving affiliate equals no placement in many cases.

But even now VOA executives brag about placing business TV reports on a business TV channel in Russia. They should know full well that certain topics are off limits in those reports.

The other question is how long even this arrangement can last. Should VOA deliberately avoid certain topics to get its reports placed in Russia no matter what to prove that it has a larger audience? Should the same be done in Pakistan and Indonesia? Should VOA produce entertainment oriented features for Latin America to get such local placement because local affiliates prefer those to political news reports. Should this kind of placement, which is no different from what commercial media outlets provide or buy, be counted as proof of impact by the U.S. taxpayer-supported Voice of America? This has been a definite trend under the IBB guidance in recent years.

Some program delivery options are safe. Broadcasting from Greenville, NC on shortwave certainly is. Leasing an AM transmitter in Lithuania, an ally of the United States and NATO member, appears safe. Relying only on a leased AM transmitter in Moscow for radio is foolish, even if the program is also available online. Very few people listen to radio on satellite TV receivers. Ending a direct 30 min. daily VOA satellite TV news broadcast to Russia in 2008 was a strategic mistake. Ending VOA radio broadcasts to Russia in 2008 was a strategic mistake. Relying on placing self-censored reports on a business TV channel in Russia is a strategic mistake. Thinking that placement of English lessons takes care of the obligations of the VOA Charter is a strategic mistake. Decimating the VOA newsroom is a strategic mistake. Creating a hostile work environment that forces many experienced and talented correspondents to leave is also part of the strategy to replace news reporting with easy to place feature reports. It is all a strategic mistake.

Local placement and serving as the Washington Bureau can be an effective strategy in some cases and even a certain number of feature reports placed on local stations can be good for brand recognition provided that there is no self-censorship and program delivery cannot be easily compromised.

AFGE Local 1812 is right. IBB and VOA executives have been remarkably shortsighted and naive. Smart local placement and the Washington bureau approach should be used in certain cases, but it cannot be the foundation of program delivery strategy to countries like Russia, China, or Pakistan. These executives are playing with fire. With their program content and program delivery policies, they are undermining support in Congress for Voice of America broadcasting also to other countries, including Iran.

AFGE Local 1812

The War on Information

By American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812

In an editorial worthy of the very worst days of the Cold War, the Voice of Russia, the anti-U.S. voice of the Putin dictatorship, gloats that “Orwellian US propaganda tool VOA is finished in Russia.” Let’s hope not.

The Voice of Russia is alluding to the fact that the United States Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees, when allowed to do so by the IBB bureaucracy, Voice of America and Radio Liberty broadcasts, recently received a terse one-sentence letter from Dmitry Kiselyov, the head and chief propagandist of Russia Today (Rossiya Segodnya), in which he stated that the Voice of America license to broadcast on AM radio in Russia would not be renewed after their contract ran out on April 1st.

The Washington Post also wrote an editorial about this and makes it clear that the Putin regime takes issue with VOA and Radio Liberty for broadcasting a different point of view  to the Russian people. Years ago, with input from our members in the language services, we warned against entrusting others with BBG transmissions especially those in newly democratic societies. This included relying on placement and affiliate broadcasts as well as abandoning shortwave radio broadcasts in favor of Internet-only programming or trusting any kind of broadcasting partnership with the increasingly autocratic and erratic Putin regime.

In recent letters to Congress, AFGE Local 1812 has emphasized the strategic importance of resuming shortwave broadcasts to Russia and Ukraine as part of an overall multi-platform U.S. broadcasting communications effort to reach people in the eastern part of Ukraine and the Crimea where Russian propaganda is most intense. At the present time, shortwave remains the most reliable vehicle to reach listeners in the nine time zones of Russia as well as a wider area of Ukraine and Crimea and remains as a foundation if the Internet, TV and social media are blocked. This multi-media platform could ensure that the people in Ukraine and Russia get necessary and true information about the situation tragically developing in their countries.

Our technicians at the Edward R. Murrow transmitting station in Greenville, NC say that the facility’s antennae could be easily directed towards Kiev and the rest of Ukraine as well as to Russia. Transmission costs are modest and would be key in ensuring the free flow of information to essential parts of the country especially before the crucial May elections.

Russia is not going to give the U.S. a level playing field, as BBG Chairman Shell and indeed all of us would wish. In addition, proposed new restrictive Russian legislation calls for up to 5 years of imprisonment for those who spread ideas of separatism, a law which could involve Radio Liberty employees in Moscow writing for the Internet or its correspondents.
It’s time for the BBG to take a more pro-active and strategic approach to waging this very real information war in which the VOA should now be more engaged. If we don’t, we will prove to everyone that, indeed, we are dysfunctional and defunct.