BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of AmericaWashington Post correspondent in Moscow Kathy Lally reports on the Russian government’s decision to stop Voice of America (VOA) rebroadcasts on a medium wave (AM) 810kHz leased frequency in Moscow.

Moscow turns off Voice of America radio By Kathy Lally, Washington Post, April 10, 2014.

What the Washington Post correspondent did not know is that the U.S. government had already once turned off VOA Russian radio rebroadcasts in Moscow on its own without any pressure from the Russian side. It happened in 2008 just days before Russian military forces attacked and occupied part of the territory of Georgia and it was an entirely U.S. decision.

Voice of America radio broadcasts in Russian were terminated in July 2008 by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) upon recommendation of its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executive staff who had determined that VOA radio to Russia was no longer necessary in the era of Internet. This IBB recommendation was accepted by the BBG board with different members and different chairman than now. IBB also ended all direct VOA satellite television news programs to Russia in July 2008 and had plans to shut down the VOA Georgian Service despite plenty of evidence of the growing Russian pressure on Georgia.

The only BBG member at that time who vigorously protested this decision was Blanquita Cullum. When after just a few days later Russia invaded Georgia, she eventually managed to persuade other BBG members to restore a very short, 30 min. only Mon. thru Fri. VOA Russian news broadcast on the AM frequency in Moscow. Previously, VOA had several hours of daily radio news broadcasts to Russia and a 30 min. satellite TV news program. And since VOA and IBB executives had eliminated many VOA radio news programs in English as well, most of VOA English programming rebroadcast on a leased AM frequency in Moscow consisted of music.

Even the very limited partial restoration of VOA Russian radio news took a long time due to strong opposition from IBB executive staff and other BBG members and required enormous efforts from Cullum, several members of Congress and media freedom advocates, including Free Media Online NGO founded by former VOA acting associate director Ted Lipien. (In 2012, some of the same IBB executives did nothing when American management of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) fired dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Putin’s Russia, claiming that they were no longer needed. Some but not all journalists were later rehired after the BBG replaced RFE/RL management team responsible for the firings, which triggered strong protests from Russian human rights groups and opposition leaders, including Lyudmila Alexeeva and Mikhail Gorbachev.)

After Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, VOA and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty were offered for lease an AM radio transmitter in Lithuania capable of reaching most of the European Russia during evening and night hours at homes and in cars, but IBB officials had ignored this offer and still reportedly refuse to consider this option even after being kicked out of Russia and after Russia’s occupation of Crimea and a real threat of further invasion of Ukraine’s territory. These U.S. governmet officials were willing to pay over $100,000 of U.S. taxpayers’ money per year to the Russian government company for the Moscow transmitter mostly for VOA English music programs, but refuse to lease an AM transmitter from Lithuania, which a close U.S. ally, or even to use U.S. government’s own shortwave transmitters for Radio Liberty news programs in Russian and Ukrainian.

IBB officials claim that VOA radio has no future in Russia and put all of their hopes on the Internet. They had ended earlier all VOA radio broadcasts to all of Ukraine and stopped rebroadcasts of Radio Liberty Rusian programs in eastern Ukraine. But according to a recent Office of Inspector General investigation, VOA was still only reaching 0.1% of Russian audience weekly online and RFE/RL was doing only slightly better with its Internet reach in Russia. OIG also pointed out that the Russian government can block the Internet for VOA and RFE/RL in Russia any time it wants to.

OIG report also blamed in part IBB officials for the management crisis at RFE/RL in Moscow in 2012 and negative public diplomacy fallout in Russia. The renewed BBG board under its new chairman Jeff Shell subsequently changed the IBB management team, but some IBB officials who remain in various positions reportedly still oppose any expansion of radio broadcasts to Russia.

See: Inspection of U.S. International Broadcasting to Russia, OIG, September 2013.