BBG Watch Commentary

VOA Ukrainian Service’s Myroslava Gongadze interviews Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia, March 27, 2014.
VOA Ukrainian Service’s Myroslava Gongadze interviews Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia, March 27, 2014.

Paraded in Public, Little Management Support

Voice of America (VOA) Ukrainian Service has received very little management support and still works with the same number of permanent employees (10) as before the Maidan protests in Kyiv, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Sources told BBG Watch VOA Ukrainian Service broadcasters are embarrassed by misleading PR exhibitions on the Hill and elsewhere and are eager to get back to do their jobs because there are so few of them and no temporary replacements or any other relief have been forthcoming.

While they are hard-working and proud of their news programs, some VOA Ukrainian staffers have decided to say as little as possible during these management-arranged PR sessions in order not to validate misleading and false claims from VOA’s senior management, sources told BBG Watch.

Some employees drop broad hints that the management is not doing enough to help them, but most are afraid to say anything in public. One senior VOA Ukrainian Service broadcaster did say in public that the service had been warning the management about the growing crisis in Ukraine and the need to prepare for it but added that no one was paying attention to these warnings.

While sources describe VOA Ukrainian Service broadcasters as overworked and continuously exhausted, at the same time they also describe them as extremely dedicated and grateful for their continued ability, albeit limited by poor management, to bring important news from the United States to Ukraine at this critical time. One staffer told BBG Watch that he will work no matter what the management does or does not do. The stakes are very high, he said.

But these talented broadcasters also increasingly feel neglected and exploited by VOA’s top leadership, sources told BBG Watch, although they note that the new International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) management team installed recently by the new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Jeff Shell and the renewed BBG Board is vastly better in dealing with employees and their problems and needs than the old one. There has been, however, no management change at VOA.

Working Without Promotions, Cuts in Broadcasts and Positions

VOA Ukrainian Service staffers have worked for years without hardly any promotions and saw many of their broadcasts eliminated and many of their experienced colleagues leave, while the number of advisors, assistants and consultants around VOA and IBB directors kept growing every year together with their $7,000 to $10,000 bonuses and frequent international and domestic travels. Employees have expressed hope to our sources that the oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors together with Congress will finally carry out management reforms at the Voice of America.

Unable to Update Website and Social Media 24/7, Same Permanent Staff As Before Crisis

VOA Ukrainian Service is producing a highly popular TV news program for Ukraine hosted by its star anchor Myroslava Gongadze, whose posts on her private Facebook page get many more “Likes” than most Voice of America English News reports. But because VOA management failed to provide sufficient additional staff and resources, VOA Ukrainian Service cannot promptly update its official news website and social media pages 24/7.

Despite an ongoing and escalating crisis in Ukraine, VOA Ukrainian Service still operates with basically the same staff as before. VOA management has not mobilized any kind of massive help for the service. The service does not have nearly enough people to cover all the news stories it wants to cover and should cover, sources told us.

Senior VOA executives are mostly busy ordering press releases on what a wonderful job the VOA Ukrainian Service is doing, traveling abroad, or trying to impress increasingly skeptical members of the BBG Board and congressional staffers.

Meanwhile, nothing much is happening in terms of much needed management support and leadership. VOA Ukrainian Service had 12 staffers before the crisis, with 10 filled positions. It still has only 10 permanent staffers.

In many months since the crisis in Ukraine started, the service was allowed to bring in only three contractors in Washington, DC and one in Kyiv who has not yet been very active, sources told BBG Watch. VOA management has posted recruiting announcements for the 2 positions in the Ukrainian Service that were previously unfilled, but no one has yet come on board. Even the posting of the positions took a long time.

Support for VOA Services Under USIA and Former VOA Directors

Things were much different when the Voice of America was still part of the United States Information Agency (USIA). When a crisis developed in central and eastern Europe, usually due to anti-regime protests and their suppression by the authorities, VOA language services were able to expand radio broadcasts, often from 1 and 1/2 hours to seven hours daily almost overnight, and in later years to start satellite television news programs to countries in crisis.

Sometimes, a VOA service chief would receive a call at home from a high level USIA official asking what extra resources were needed. When told that the service desperately needed more staffers: reporters, announcers, translators, and producers, a USIA executive would find USIA employees with needed foreign language skills and reassign them to a VOA language service until permanent staffers could be hired. These decisions were made and executed within a few days, sometimes within hours. If there were no permanent positions that could be filled or reassigned, many times a VOA director would find money for a key language service to hire a large number stringers in the U.S. and abroad.

One VOA director, Gene Pell, a former NBC correspondent, even approved long-term assignments for VOA language service reporters abroad in response to major news events. Another VOA director, Ken Tomlinson, initiated promotions for staffers in one language service dealing with a country in a major crisis. These position audits were later used in other VOA language services and resulted in numerous promotions.

VOA Executives Push for Another SES for Themselves As Ukraine Crisis Unfolds, VOA Correspondent Travel Replaced by Executive Travel

BBG Watch has learned through its sources that while the crisis in Ukraine was unfolding, current VOA executives were busy instead trying to arrange for yet another SES position for one of their senior staffers until BBG Chairman Jeff Shell together with other Board members told them in no uncertain terms that they would not approve any more SES positions at VOA. A bipartisan bill in Congress, designed to reform the Voice of America together with the rest of the BBG, would abolish most SES positions at the agency altogether.

Under the current management, correspondent travel and access to newsmakers has diminished greatly, while executive travel and attendance at domestic and international conferences by senior managers greatly increased. Years ago, a VOA language service reporter would sometimes travel with the U.S. President or the Vice President on foreign trips that had direct impact on a particular country to which VOA directed its broadcasts. VOA directors were also able to arrange for a VOA English News and even language service interviews with the President or the Vice President.

Under USIA and some former VOA directors, language services experiencing a major crisis in their target country would get a much larger travel budget to send staffers on reporting trips in the U.S. and abroad. Former VOA directors Gene Pell, Ken Tomlinson, and Robert Reilly were especially generous to language services that needed extra resources. These former directors had far fewer assistants, advisors and program directors than the current team.

The kind of program assistance and coordination from top leadership seen under USIA and some former VOA directors is simply not happening at the Voice of America these days. Not even a VOA English News reporter went with Vice President Biden on a recent trip to Kyiv. A VOA English News video report from Ukraine failed even to mention that the Vice President and a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation were present in the country for the inauguration of Ukraine’s President Poroshenko. Meanwhile, the VOA director went on an extended European trip with stops in Poland and Ukraine.

VOA Budget Not Much Smaller, Bureaucratic Waste Much Bigger, New Managers Lack Foreign Affairs Experience

While the VOA budget is now somewhat tighter than it was in the 1980s and the 1990s, it is not vastly smaller than it was then despite loud claims to the contrary by VOA executives. The bureaucratic waste is now, however, vastly bigger. The current VOA management has done close to nothing for the VOA Ukrainian and Russian services in response to the crisis in Ukraine except to give them more work. The services also took on more work on their own because they care greatly about their impact and appreciate the critical importance of their media outreach.

Certainly nothing similar was done in recent months for VOA Ukrainian Service in terms of additional resources and management help compared to what was being done for some of the VOA language services in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s, and even into the 1990s.

Even as late as the early 2000s, VOA’s top and mid-level management was still able to quickly arrange for the start of the VOA Ukrainian Service satellite television news program during the Orange Revolution, which fortunately still exists and is highly popular today in Ukraine. Former VOA and IBB executives had terminated a similar VOA Russian satellite TV news program in 2008, shortly before Russia invaded Georgia.

Looking at the broader picture, current VOA executives do not have the same connection with VOA language services and foreign countries that many former VOA and USIA officials did before 2000. New managers did not have to pass any exams to show knowledge of foreign languages and cultures and foreign relations. All some of them had to do was to know someone on the inside, often a former private sector work associate, to get a high paying government job from which it is very difficult to remove them after their probationary period is over.

IBB Poll in Russia-Occupied Crimea: Political Blunder, Questionable Results

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.

Some of these high level managers are responsible for numerous political blunders, including ordering a recent poll in Russia-occupied Crimea and presenting its highly questionable results obtained under conditions of great confusion, intimidation and fear as completely valid. Top independent sociologists in Russia and Ukraine, as well as U.S. experts, have questioned the validity of this poll, while political observers said that it was a monumental blunder for a U.S. government agency to conduct a public survey in occupied Crimea, thus legitimizing its annexation by Russia, and then brag about it in press releases and a public presentation in Washington, DC.

The IBB presentation of the Crimea poll results validated many of the Kremlin’s propaganda points and only talked about ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians without mentioning Crimean Tatars who constitute 12% of the population and are known to be strongly opposed Russian rule.

Such blunders, however, happen more and more frequently at IBB and VOA due to past managerial and personnel decisions and lack of accountability. USIA and VOA officials in previous decades would have never allowed conducting a public poll paid for by the U.S. government in a country or territory annexed and occupied by the Soviet Union, especially if the United States government did not recognize the annexation.

According to experts, the results of the IBB-ordered Crimean poll cannot be trusted and some of the questions may have been phrased in such a way that any possible answers would favor the Kremlin’s point of view. These questionable poll results in favor of the Russian annexation were later presented in an IBB press release that made Crimea look like a nearly normal country. The press release was then picked up by some international and U.S. media and publicized worldwide. The IBB press release made no reference to the Russian occupation, intimidation, fear, Russian propaganda or any other problems with the conditions under which the poll was conducted. It apparently did not occur to IBB strategic planners and audience research specialists that if similar polls were conducted in the Baltic states after the Soviet annexation or in Eastern European countries after they became part of the Soviet block, their results would not have been any different. (BBG Watch volunteers are working on a separate report on the IBB/Gallup Crimea poll. Check our website for updates.)

VOA Ukrainian Service staffers were not only appalled by the U.S. taxpayers funded IBB poll in occupied Crimea. They had to protest when VOA English News posted a map showing Crimea to be part of Russia (apparently posted by a VOA contractor) and when VOA English programs changed the spelling of the name of Ukraine’s capital from Kyiv to Kiev.

New IBB Team Is Better, Structual Problems Remain

Even though IBB now has a new and better management team, some of the old executives still occupy their positions. The International Broadcasting Bureau still controls 34% of the BBG budget without producing any programs. In addition to providing administrative and some programming support, in other respects it is only a pale equivalent of USIA, which had other problems, but at least as VOA’s parent agency had some clout and some influence within the U.S. government.

Most of IBB resources are now tied up in bureaucratic positions and cannot be used to help VOA language services. Until the recent management change at the International Broadcasting Bureau, the number of bureaucratic positions at IBB has increased 37% in the last seven years while at the same time IBB and VOA executives have cut numerous broadcasts and programming positions.

The new IBB management team did arrange for some outside funding for VOA programs to Ukraine and showed willingness to listen and to help, but it does not have the same clout, experience, ability to bring large extra funding, access to top administration officials and members of Congress or freedom of action that many former USIA and VOA leaders did. It would be best if all or most of IBB would be eliminated and its resources and employees spread among various BBG media entities.

Employees Looking to BBG and Congress for Reforms

To make things worse for new IBB managers, they have to deal with an exceptionally bad senior management at VOA.

The only hope now for the agency and its employees now, including the VOA Ukrainian Service, is that Congress will pass the bipartisan Royce – Engel U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Legislation. Congressman Royce (R-CA), who is Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the danger to Voice of America is maintaining the status quo. “Freedom of information around the world is essential for our national security objectives. The real ‘dangerous step’ would be to do nothing,” Chairman Royce wrote in the Letter to the Editor of The Washington Post.



BBG Networks Covering Continued Tensions, Violence In Ukraine

As the world waits to see what happens next in the standoff with Russia, the networks of the BBG are providing comprehensive coverage, exclusive interviews and unique reporting on the latest developments in Ukraine and the region.

In addition to ongoing coverage ontelevisionradio and online, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are providing up-to-the-minute reports, ongoing analysis and important context for audiences throughout the region.

Elena Rykovtseva, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Russian Service, was in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa when clashes broke out between pro-Russian separatists and supporters of the government in Kyiv on the evening of May 2.More than 40 people died in the city that day, most of them in a fire in the city’s trade-union building. Immediately after the fire, several rumors emerged – that a pregnant woman was among the dead, and that a local doctor had been prevented by Ukrainian nationalists from helping the injured and that he was told that he and the city’s other Jews would also be dead soon. Articles on RFE/RL’s Russian-language “Lie of the Day” and English-language #UkraineUnspun blogs helped expose the truth behind these provocative – and false – claims. VOA’s Ukrainian Service covered the State Department deputy spokesperson’s statement on the Odessa tragedy, which called for a thorough investigation and for the immediate implementation of the April 17 Geneva agreement to de-escalate the crisis.

Perhaps nowhere is the failure of the Geneva agreement more evident than inDonetsk. None of the agreement’s goals has been reached in the city, and tensions and violence are on the rise. Two Russian journalists were recently captured there and later deported to Russia, and after OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović expressed concern, VOA Russian asked several journalists inside the country to talk about the reporting environment there. RFE/RL reported that Ukraine’s Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Velykovych declared that Russian commandos operating in eastern Ukraine are targeting doctors and journalists for kidnappings.

In an exclusive interview, VOA Russian spoke with Mikhail Kasyanov, former Russian prime minister and current opposition leader and co-leader of the Republican Party of People’s Freedom (PARNAS) Party. Kasyanov explained, “Demonstration of potential aggression in eastern Ukraine is meant to force West to accept the annexation of the Crimea and to recognize its legitimacy.”

However, as RFE/RL reports, since the Russian takeover, life in Crimea has become increasingly difficult for many living there. RFE/RL interviewed Crimean Tatar leaderMustafa Dzhemilev, who was denied entry into Crimea on May 2. He was told by Russian-backed authorities running Crimea that the Crimean Tatars’ main self-government body, the Mejlis, will be liquidated. In addition to the interview, RFE/RL provided important context on why the group is at the center of ethnic tensions with a detailed explainer piece called What Is The Crimean Tatar Mejlis?

Voice of America is continuing to provide important coverage of U.S. and international reaction. In addition to its own coverage of the Obama-Merkel meeting in Washington, D.C., the Ukrainian Service conducted a live 10-minute interactive for Hromadske TV via Skype on the possible new sanctions on Russia.

VOA Ukrainian also covered the U.N. Security Council meeting at which U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power commended Ukrainian government restraint and supported as legitimate the actions of the Ukrainian government against armed separatists. The Service also covered the announcement of the approval of a new $17-billion IMF loan package for the country. And when a Ukrainian-American demonstration was held at the White House calling for additional sanctions against Russia for its aggression, VOA Ukrainian was there to cover it.

BBG Audience Reach Doubles In Ukraine

JUNE 5, 2014

WASHINGTON — The audience of U.S. international media (USIM) networks in Ukraine has doubled in the past year, according to newest polling data from a nation-wide survey conducted in April 2014.

The findings show that each week, one in five adults (20.8%) in Ukraine (including Crimea) turn to USIM networks for news across Ukrainian and Russian-language platforms. This is an increase from 9.8% measured in October 2012.

The change coincides with stepped-up efforts by BBG networks to respond to the crisis in Ukraine with innovative on-air programming and online options that engage audiences directly and drive interest in the broadcasts.  Read more about the programming here and here.

Voice of America programming reaches 18.3% of adults weekly nationwide, including Crimea, up from 9.2% in 2012. Similarly, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s weekly audience reach jumped from 2.8% to 7.8%.  Audiences say that the networks’ coverage has been a trusted and important source of news, and has increased their understanding of events during the crisis.

“Our networks are providing news coverage in Ukraine that is urgently needed, particularly in light of the increase of Russian propaganda and  misinformation in the country,” said Bruce Sherman, Director of Strategy and Development.

Audience reach is two to three times higher among those who describe themselves as ethnically Ukrainian (22.9% of ethnic Ukrainians weekly and 32.8% of those who mostly speak Ukrainian at home), though one in ten adults nationwide who categorize themselves as ethnically Russian have seen or heard USIM content in the past week. Most of the increase in USIM weekly audience reach is from Ukrainian content, but VOA and RFE/RL’s Russian language content also saw a modest increase.

In regional terms, USIM’s weekly reach is highest in the west (41.7%) and center (26.3%) of Ukraine. But BBG networks’ weekly reach grew significantly in the east and south to 9.3% (from 3.5% in 2012) and to 11.6% (from 2.9% in 2012) in the three eastern provinces most affected by separatist violence. In Crimea, USIM reached 3.2% of adults weekly despite the strict media restrictions that forced its TV and radio affiliates off the air in March.