BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of America Director David Ensor (photo) says VOA combats Moscow's propaganda. Critics say VOA often fails to counter propaganda from the Kremlin's  media outlets and sometimes promotes it.
Voice of America Director David Ensor (photo) says VOA combats Moscow’s propaganda. Critics say VOA often fails to counter propaganda from the Kremlin’s media outlets and sometimes promotes it.

U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) often fails to counter Russian propaganda and sometimes even promotes it due to mismanagement at senior levels. The bureaucracy in charge of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the parent agency of the Voice of America, conducted a poll among the intimidated segments of the population in Russia-annexed and occupied Crimea and presented and promoted faulty results in line with the Kremlin’s propaganda as completely valid. VOA English News also presented and promoted these highly questionable poll results. Some VOA language services, particularly its Ukrainian Service, are still effective in countering at least some of the Kremlin’s propaganda, but even they suffer from neglect and poor agency leadership, both from VOA executives as well as senior agency managers working for the International Bureau (IBB) which manages the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. A bipartisan bill in Congress designed to reform U.S. international broadcasting enjoys strong support among VOA employees for its management reform provisions, but it also has generated some concerns over VOA’s future journalistic independence. Some members of Congress want to defund Voice of America altogether because of mismanagement and violations of VOA Charter.

Voice of America often fails to counter Russian propaganda and sometimes promotes it

A recent ordering by the International Broadcasting Bureau of a highly questionable public opinion poll in Russia-annexed Crimea shows that IBB U.S. government executives, who exercise tremendous power and influence over Voice of America and to some extent over other BBG broadcasters like Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/EL), lack political judgement and ability to manage U.S. international media outreach on behalf of the Broadcasting Board of Governors at a very critical time for the United States in many dangerous regions of the world. SEE: U.S. BBG pays for faulty, favoring Kremlin propaganda poll in Russia-annexed Crimea, BBG Watch, June 16, 2014.

IBB executives are also still trying to expand their control over RFE/RL, which as a semi-independent grantee / surrogate news organization does a far better job of countering President Putin’s propaganda than Voice of America. VOA is under IBB’s more direct control. But even RFE/RL and two other of BBG’s surrogate broadcasters, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), are also hampered by IBB bureaucrats in Washington.

The bipartisan Royce – Engel U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Legislation, H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act, introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) Ranking Member, is designed to reform and transform the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The bill’s management reform provision enjoy strong support among many rank-and-file VOA employees, especially in VOA’s many language services, which historically have had a difficult relationships with both upper VOA management and VOA Central English Newsroom, both seen by many foreign language VOA broadcasters as neglecting the needs of VOA foreign language broadcasts.

The bill, which had been unanimously approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was endorsed by the AFGE Local 1812 union. Some VOA reporters, especially VOA English News foreign correspondents, who themselves have U.S. Foreign Service limited appointments, and some VOA English Newsroom reporters worry, however, that the wording of the proposed legislation might expose VOA news reporting to pressures from U.S. government officials, especially the State Department.

Supporters of the bipartisan reform bill and those who have only minimal reservations with regard to some of the bill’s current wording about VOA’s mission counter that failed IBB executives are themselves U.S. government officials. Supporters of the bill point out that these officials currently enjoy almost unlimited power over VOA services and VOA’s future. They blame IBB officials for eliminating broadcasts and journalistic positions at the Voice of America while expanding their own IBB bureaucracy and ruining VOA’s news reporting, both at the VOA Central English Newsroom and at VOA language services.

The VOA, IBB and Office of Cuba Broadcasting employee union is reportedly working with members of Congress on improving the wording of the H.R. 4490 bill in order to preserve management reforms while strengthening VOA’s journalistic independence and improving VOA’s news reporting performance. The bill’s final wording and its future are still uncertain.

VOA’s news reporting performance has become dismal under the current VOA leadership. Voice of America news service failed to cover a gathering of international leaders in Poland, at which VOA Director David Ensor spoke about countering propaganda spread by Russian state media outlets. VOA did not report his comments. A day later, VOA English News posted a video report from the presidential inauguration of Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv which failed to note the presence of Vice President Biden and the bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation (it was reported by VOA English News but very briefly in a text report without a specific headline).

Despite these and numerous other VOA news reporting failures, David Ensor said in an Atlantic Council video from the Wroclaw Global Forum 2014 that Voice of America is effective in combatting the Kremlin’s propaganda. He added that VOA could use more funding from the U.S. Congress to do an even better job.

We believe that what the Voice of America really needs is better management and stricter observance of its congressional VOA Charter. Once reformed, VOA language services and the VOA English Newsroom could use more staff and more funding to become truly effective.

We note for the record that Al Pessin, a senior VOA foreign correspondent currently based in London, has written an op-ed in opposition to the bipartisan bill designed to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors, including the Voice of America, charging that the legislation, if passed, would turn VOA into a Kremlin-like propaganda machine for the U.S. government. SEE: Op-Ed Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real, By Al Pessin, The Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2014.

Editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post also expressed similar concerns about VOA’s future journalistic independence, although both papers also seem to favor management reforms at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America. Director Ensor reportedly thanked Mr. Pessin for his op-ed, in which Mr. Pessin was expressing his personal views.

BBG’s new chairman Jeff Shell, who himself favors management reforms but may not want the BBG board to lose control over the surrogate media outlets, reportedly advised BBG members and heads of broadcasting units not to comment on the bill one way or another. Shell believes that a new management team he helped to install at IBB can start reforming the organization while the board looks for a permanent CEO, but critics point out that while the new team is better than the spectacularly bad previous one, it still lacks essential foreign policy and management experience.

Critics point out that some of the most serious recent incidents happened already under the new team’s watch, although they were apparently caused by the old executives. Only one BBG member, Matt Armstrong, a Republican appointee, came out publicly strongly against the bipartisan reform bill, calling its criticism of BBG’s management “dated,” “overly harsh” and “less than incomprehensible.” Only one BBG member, Michael Meehan, a Democratic appointee, came out publicly strongly in support of the Royce – Engel bill. SEE: BBG governor stands alone supporting Reform Act, BBG Watch, June 19, 2014.

Meehan favors making surrogate BBG broadcasters independent of the federal IBB bureaucracy and wants to move VOA’s TV broadcasts to Iran, Persian News Network (PNN), from VOA to RFE/RL. Mismanagement within VOA has apparently lowered the quality of PNN broadcasts. For many months, VOA executives reportedly had hidden from BBG members the news that PNN’s most popular TV show, “Parazit,” was no longer on the air due to departure of its host.

After we posted a video of VOA Director David Ensor speaking in Poland last week on how VOA is combatting Moscow’s propaganda, Voice of America helped to promote Russian government’s propaganda by reporting on a faulty poll conducted in Russia-annexed and occupied Ukraine at the initiative of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ International Broadcasting Bureau longterm executives.

Some of these IBB executives, who work directly for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, themselves also promoted these questionable poll results, which reinforced major propaganda themes from RT and other Russian state media controlled by the Kremlin, and then got Voice of America to promote them as well in a news report, no questions asked.

Independent experts in the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine dismissed the IBB poll in Russian-annexed Crimea as unreliable, as the public opinion survey was conducted in the atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and most likely did not even have questions in the Tatar language for the Tatars living in Crimea.

Some foreign policy experts compared the IBB-ordered poll to the U.S. government doing a similar poll in Austria shortly after the 1938 Anschluss or in the Baltic states after their forceful annexation by the Soviet Union and then bragging about the results showing overwhelming support for Hitler and Stalin.

It would have never happened then, and it should not have happened now if IBB and VOA executives had even a minimum amount of knowledge of history and U.S. foreign policy, not to mention simple political common sense. SEE: U.S. BBG pays for faulty, favoring Kremlin propaganda poll in Russia-annexed Crimea, BBG Watch, June 16, 2014.

This is what was reported on the Voice of America English news website in early June. Voice of America does not counter the Kremlin’s propaganda in this report; the VOA report promotes it.

VOICE OF AMERICA: “The survey of Crimeans after the Russian takeover showed they are overwhelmingly happy to be part of Russia, with nearly three-quarters of those surveyed saying their life will improve as part of Russia rather than Ukraine.”

“‘It is part of Russia now, and you saw that the support is huge for Russian government’, said Esipova.” SEE MORE: Gallup Poll Shows Wide Political Split in Ukraine, Voice of America, June 6, 2014.

The BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau press release also helped to promote Moscow’s propaganda points by bragging about the results of a faulty poll in Russia-annexed Crimea. At the IBB-organized press conference in Washington, there was no mention about intimidation of Crimean Ukrainians or about attitudes of the Crimean Tatars who constitute about 12% of the population and who had opposed the referendum. About half of Crimean Tatars’ ancestors, mostly women and children, had died when Stalin deported them from Crimea. (VOA English News also failed to report on Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the Tatar deportation or on a meeting Kerry and President Obama had in Warsaw with Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.)

IBB PRESS RELEASE: “The results of the survey, conducted April 21-29, 2014, showed that 83% of Crimeans felt that the results of the March 16 referendum on Crimea’s status likely reflected the views of most people there. This view is shared only by 30% in the rest of the country. Most Crimeans (74%) also responded that they believe that life would be better as part of Russia.” SEE MORE: Ukraine Political Attitudes Split, Crimeans Turning To Russian Sources For News, Broadcasting Board of Governors – International Broadcasting Bureau Press Release, June 3, 2014.

Two prominent independent sociologists in Ukraine and Russia, as well as some American experts who have done extensive polling and analysis of polling data in Eurasia, have described a recent public opinion survey ordered and paid for by the United States government through the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in Russia-occupied Crimea as questionable, while some political observers call it a major public diplomacy blunder for the U.S.

According to Prof. Lev Gudkov, a prominent Russian sociologist from the Levada Center in Moscow, “the results of this study [IBB/BBG/Gallup poll in Crimea] may indeed be subject to some doubt.”

According to Prof. Volodymyr Paniotto, a prominent Ukrainian sociologist and General Director of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, conducting a U.S. government ordered poll in Crimea legitimized the annexation of the territory by Russia in addition to producing results that “may be questionable and need deeper methodological analysis.”

Some American experts were “shocked” by the BBG/IBB/Gallup poll and the presentation of its results.

“Conducting research in an occupied territory where people’s lives are in danger, and the United States government expects them to answer whether they think the U.S., Poland, etc. are playing a positive or a negative role is crazy, ” one expert observed.

“Doing research is important, but we need to do it with quality,” said Dr. Nino Japaridze, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Project on Democratic Transitions. Prior to 2006, she worked for a company doing audience research for IBB. Dr. Japaridze noted that “adults in Crimea with anti-Russian predispositions, out of fear, may have selected responses that would have been more likely to please pro-Russia activists in order to avoid intimidation or worse.”

Also after we posted the video with VOA Director David Ensor on on combating Moscow’s propaganda in Ukraine, Voice of America left it to Russian RT and Voice of Russia to report on a serious scandal in US-Poland relations and even failed to report on the State Department’s official comment on the controversy resulting from a secret recording of a private conversation involving Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski.

Some suspect that the scandal over Sikorski’s alleged remarks may have been instigated by Russia’s intelligence services. It was certainly fully exploited by RT and Voice to Russia, to which Voice of America English News offered no reporting (UPDATE: until today) and no U.S. reactions UPDATE: not even today), official or otherwise. SEE: Voice of America ignored State Department comment on U.S.-Polish controversy, BBG Watch, June 24, 2014.

There was nothing (UPDATE: not even today) from the Voice of America to counter these propaganda statements from Voice of Russia and RT:

VOICE OF RUSSIA POLITICAL ANALYST ANDREW KORYBKO: “People have to bear in mind,” he said, “that Radoslaw Sikorski has been trained and educated in the West, in Great Britain and then in the US where he worked with neo-conservative think tanks. So, this is the man who came of age, came to his career from the West. Even though he was born in Poland, in a political context he is a western import into the Polish political structure.”

“The US does not only need Polish political establishment, they actually don’t care what parties are in power, but they need Polish territory for the missile defence shield, for NATO bases, for this policy of ramping up NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe,” he said. “And the US sees Poland as the perfect launching ground for anti-Russian foreign policy, owing to Poland’s social and historic characteristics.” READ MORE: US to save misbehaved Polish FM as their import into Poland’s politics – expert, Voice of Russia, June 23, 2014.

RT: “Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has proven his ‘political realism’ by comparing his country’s relations with the US to unrewarding oral sex, the Russian Foreign Ministry commented.”

“In a leaked recording of a private conversation, Sikorski said that Warsaw’s alliance with Washington is worthless and even damaging as it ‘creates a false sense of security in Poland’, as cited by Wprost, which published excerpts from the alleged exchange between Sikorski and Jacek Rostowski, an MP and former finance minister.” READ MORE: Polish FM’s oral sex comment on US ‘shows his political realism’ – Moscow, RT, June 23, 2014.

RT’s June 23 report shows over 2,700 Facebook “Shares” and over 100 comments as of 11:00 PM EDT June 25. VOA English news reports rarely get more than a few dozen Facebook “Shares/Recommends” and very few comments, a clear indication of VOA’s poor social media and audience engagement performance.

BBC (See: June 23 report), Deutsche Welle (DW) (See: June 23 report) and countless other international and U.S. media outlets reported extensively on Sikorski’s controversial comments and some (BBC, DW, and Voice of Russia, among them) even reported the U.S. State Department spokesperson’s statement.

MS. MARIE HARF, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: “Well, I can’t comment on alleged tapes. I can’t confirm their authenticity or background. I’m just not in a position to verify that. But more broadly, the United States and Poland have an incredibly strong relationship. You saw recently the Secretary certainly has been there, has been meeting, including with the foreign minister. And this is a relationship based on shared values. It remains strong. It’s a key part of our alliances in that part of the world. And the crisis in Ukraine, I think, has made that even more the case, where we’re confronting a shared threat together. So I can’t comment on the authenticity of the tapes, but I know that the Secretary and the foreign minister have a very good relationship and we’ll continue to have one with Poland.”

RT reported on some parts of the U.S. State Department spokesperson’s statement, but not Voice of America.

FP (Foreign Policy) had an excellent, comprehensive and balanced article on the U.S.-Poland controversy, which may also affect U.S. relations with Ukraine and the whole region, as well as U.S. relations with Western Europe. There was nothing from the Voice of America after an initial report from Reuters many days ago that did not mention Sikorski’s comments.

(UPDATE: The first VOA English News report on the scandal with Sikorski’s alleged anti-U.S. remarks was posted only today and it still had nothing about the earlier comment by the U.S. State Department spokesperson.)

SEE: DISPATCH Overheard in Warsaw – Warsaw’s elite thought they were off the record. What happened next threatens Poland’s politics and international relations, By Jan Cienski, FP, June 25, 2014.

In light of these developments, VOA Director David Ensor’s statement on combating Moscow’s propaganda sounds rather hollow, although it is true that the VOA Ukrainian Service has outstanding journalists and produces an excellent television news program. The service, however, lacks resources and help from the senior management to promptly post news reports on its website and its social media pages 24/7.

Because of mismanagement and neglect at the most senior VOA and IBB levels, VOA Ukrainian Service still has the same number of permanent staffers in Washington (10) it had shortly before the crisis in Ukraine started (it did get three new contractors in Washington since the crisis erupted, but it had earlier 12 staffers).

VOA Ukrainian Service had a report on Sikorski’s alleged comments already on June 22, but again nothing on the State Department’s reaction. VOA Russian Service posted online, not a VOA report but a Reuters report, on June 23, but again there was nothing on the State Department spokesperson’s comments.

While the VOA Ukrainian Service works extremely well with woefully inadequate resources, the VOA Russian Service work appears more problematic despite some improvements. Some of the former and remaining problems, however, are again due to management and personnel decisions by senior IBB and VOA executives. They had replaced experienced journalists with poorly trained, poorly supervised and poorly paid contractors.

A prominent Russian new media scholar and independent journalist Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy concluded in a 2011 study commissioned and quickly hidden by IBB that the VOA Russian Service website had a “pro-Putin bias.”

Later, VOA Russian Service posted a fake interview with a major Russian opposition leader and mistranslated comments from a former U.S. secretary of defense. Both of these incidents were exploited against the United States by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.

In another embarrassing incident, a contractor working for Voice of America English news produced a map showing Crimea to be part of Russia. VOA English News had the map online for many hours before it was corrected.

Voice of America map shows Crimea as no longer part of Ukraine, even though the U.S. Government, which funds VOA, does not recognize Crimea as being part of Russia or as a separate territory. The map was removed after protests from VOA Ukrainian Service and outside experts.
Voice of America map shows Crimea as no longer part of Ukraine, even though the U.S. Government, which funds VOA, does not recognize Crimea as being part of Russia or as a separate territory. The map was removed after protests from VOA Ukrainian Service and outside experts.

For the sake of balance, however, we include the video and a full transcript of VOA Director David Ensor’s remarks on how Voice of America counters propaganda from the Kremlin. You may draw your own conclusions.

David Ensor on Combating Propaganda in Ukraine

Atlantic Council Video

Link to Video on YouTube.


MODERATOR: “We are here on the sidelines of the Wroclaw Global Forum. We have David Ensor, the Director of Voice of America.

David, earlier today we hear a panelist talk about the war of information that is going on in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine.

I’d like to know what you thought about his comment that Radio Free Europe was one of the greatest national security tools that the United States has in the region. What do you think about what the U.S. is doing right now to combat Russian propaganda?”

DAVID ENSOR, VOA DIRECTOR: “Radio Free Europe and Voice of America are — he’s right — among the most important tools the United States has in responding to untruths and propaganda from places like Moscow.

And we’re doing a lot. I’d love to do more. We would need more resources to be able to do more. But we’re doing a lot.

The companies that include Radio Free Europe and Voice of America and broadcast with U.S. funding reach 205 million people every week, 164 million of those from Voice of America alone.

Since the invasion of Crimea and the annexation of Crimea, we’ve upped our game in various ways in the region. For example, with some funds from the State Department, the Voice of America broadcasts now in Russian to eastern Ukraine. Our Ukrainian Service reaching now more of the Russian speakers in the East of that country with unbiased and balanced news broadcasts to tell them about how the conflict is viewed from the outside of the area.

One of the problems right now is that too many of the Russian speakers, not only in Ukraine, but also in places like Latvia, really don’t have much broadcasting of news that they can go to, other than broadcasting of Russia Today [RT] and some of the propaganda broadcasts from Moscow.

So, we fill that niche. I’d like to see us do more and we’re working very hard on trying to up our game, but we’re pretty effective.”