FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, September 11, 2006, San Francisco — FreeMediaOnline.org has learned that several members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors refused to take a vote Thursday to restore Voice of America radio programs to Russia, Georgia, Ukraine and other countries. VOA radio to Russia was shut down by the BBG on July 26, just 12 days before Russian troops attacked Georgia. At least two of the Democratic members of the BBG are strongly opposed to the restoration of VOA programs to Eurasia but tried to avoid having their opposition documented with a vote. The BBG executive director Jeff Trimble had tried earlier to prevent the proposal for a vote from being introduced.
According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, during the BBG meeting in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, two Democratic Board members: Jeff Hirschberg and Edward Kaufman blocked the motion to have a vote, which was introduced by a Republican member, radio broadcaster Blanquita Cullum. Faced with the opposition from Hirschberg and Kaufman, the remaining BBG members did not support Cullum’s request.
The two Democratic members rejected Cullum’s arguments that there is urgent need not only for restoring but also enhancing VOA radio broadcasting to Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Supported by their budget director Janet Stormes, they countered that the BBG could not afford to pay for Cullum’s initiative, calling it irresponsible. Both were dismissive of the argument made at the Thursday meeting that the resumption of radio broadcasts would send a message to Mr. Putin, letting him know that the U.S. will not abandon its support for free media.
Hirschberg and Kaufman are said to favor several expensive but highly questionable Internet projects, which depend strongly for their success on the acquiescence of the Putin government. FreeMediaOnline.org has obtained a copy of the “VOA Russian Options Paper” focusing on the Internet and plans to review it. A quick reading by an expert with direct knowledge of Russian media and politics has revealed that the proposed project is vastly overpriced and based on a number of highly questionable and politically naive assumptions.
Hirschberg, Kaufman, and Trimble also want all radio broadcasting to Russia to be done exclusively by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a semi-private entity based in Prague and in Moscow. They all have strong personal or political links to the station, which has been steeped lately in controversy about its ability to maintain independence and support for democratic values while operating within a close reach of Russia’s security services. Human rights groups and media freedom activists have criticized RFE/RL for airing comments expressing confidence in Mr. Putin’s leadership and for giving airtime to local extremist politicians known for their racist views.
According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, both Hirschberg and Kaufman were unmoved by Cullum’s arguments that Russia’s attack on Georgia requires the BBG to take extraordinary steps. She was quoted as saying that recent events have proven that the BBG was completely misguided in approving the termination of VOA Russian, Georgian, Ukrainian and other programs. Cullum is said to be the only BBG member who has consistently opposed these cuts.
VOA director Dan Austin was said to have shown little concern about the BBG decision to take away from VOA radio broadcasting to a major world power. He was described as a weak leader who did not put up any fight when the original decision was made or during the most recent unsuccessful attempt by Blanquita Cullum to have it reversed.
According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, Jeff Hirschberg, Edward Kaufman, and the BBG executive director Jeff Trimble worked closely over the summer with the Senate staff of Senator Joe Biden to quickly and quietly implement the shutting down of VOA radio to Russia in late July without alerting other members of Congress. Many in Congress have been strongly opposed to this move on national security grounds and see it as a blow to media freedom in Russia. However, due to the skillful bureaucratic maneuvering by Trimble, Hirschberg, and Kaufman, and the strong support from Senator Biden’s staff, other Republican and Democratic members of Congress have been unable this year to stop the BBG from eliminating Voice of America radio presence in Russia.
Hirschberg and Kaufman were also said to be unimpressed with arguments that the U.S. policy toward Moscow has changed after the Russian military attack on Georgia. Vice President Cheney visited both Georgia and Ukraine, and President Bush announced last week a $1 billion aid package to Georgia, but the White House has not been focusing on international broadcasting to areas other than the Middle East. It is not clear whether the White House wants to do anything or could do anything to force Hirschberg and Kaufman to restore VOA radio programs to Russia and other countries.
Ted Lipien, president of media freedom nonprofit FreeMediaOnline.org, who formerly served as Voice of America acting associate director, pointed out that there appear to be clear conflicts of interest in how some of the Board members and their staff have been dealing with Russia. Lipien said that these conflicts of interest have contributed to depriving the United States of safe and journalistically sound Voice of America radio broadcasting to Russia from Washington, D.C. He also said that the same conflicts of interest have exposed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists working in Russia to intimidation by the secret police and Mr. Putin’s associates. Using the FSB security service agents, the Kremlin now monitors and controls nearly all broadcast media in that country.
The apparent conflicts of interest at the BBG are personal, bureaucratic, and political, according to Lipien, and have resulted in decisions, which Mr. Putin would highly approve of but which are harmful to American interests and U.S. public diplomacy.
Jeff Trimble is a former acting president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which would benefit from the shutting down of VOA Russian-language and Ukrainian-language programs. RFE/RL is incorporated in Senator Biden’s home state. Kaufman, was formerly Senator Biden’s chief of staff and is now helping him with his campaign in the run for the White House. D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, partner and managing director of Kalorama Partners, was Director of the US-Russian Investment Fund (appointment of President Clinton), Director of the US-Russia Business Council (ten years) and US-Russia Center for Entrepreneurship.
Jeff Trimble and Jeff Hirschberg had traveled in previous years to Russia, where they conducted negotiations with Russian officials and associates of President and now Prime Minister Putin. They reportedly discussed the status of RFE/RL large news bureau in Moscow, which still operates while most independent Russian broadcasters have been silenced.
The Moscow Human Rights Bureau, a pro-democracy NGO, has recently criticized Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for giving extensive airtime to an extremist politician who is known for making racist comments about immigrants and other groups. Last year, shortly after the murder of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the head of RFE/RL bureau in Moscow had publicly expressed her confidence in “the common sense of the Russian leadership.” Human rights activists criticized RFE/RL for airing these comments shortly after Politkovskaya’s brutal murder. In her reporting, Politkovskaya had been critical of Mr. Putin’s policies.
Lipien also said that while he was helping the BBG place VOA and RFE/RL programs on independent radio stations in Russia a few years ago, the Russian management of the RFE/RL bureau in Moscow tried to force these affiliates to reveal themselves to the Russian authorities and to register these rebroadcasts. They were supported by the RFE/RL’s top American managers in Prague. Many independent affiliates saw this as a cynical attempt by RFE/RL to assist the security services in tracking them down in order to protect their Moscow bureau.
Ted Lipien has warned that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists working and living in Russia are subject to intimidation by the Russian secret police and that their safety and their work has been put in severe jeopardy by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Lipien has called for immediate restoration of VOA Russian-language radio broadcasts as a matter of great urgency for U.S. national security and public diplomacy.