Health Inspectors Did Not Close Down Radio Liberty Affiliates in Russia, The Secret Police Did, August 25, 2008, San Francisco — Let me preface this post by saying that I’ve heard good things about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty president Jeffrey Gedmin. According to my sources, he tries to ignore some of the more questionable directives from the Broadcasting Board of Governors and move the emphasis from the BBG-driven marketing focus back to content. But he has been doing this quietly and does not want to admit publicly that because of BBG’s actions, RFE/RL is no longer an effective external “surrogate broadcaster” or that his organization faces serious programming and security problems in Russia. In fact, he insists that RFE/RL continues to be a surrogate broadcaster in Russia.

To admit that these problems exist would undermine efforts to secure more federal money for RFE/RL, including its Moscow bureau, which costs U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars each year — money that could be much better spent on expanding a network of independent reporters. This kind of public discussion tends to undermine the requests being made to the BBG and Congress for continued funding of RFE/RL’s extensive administrative operation in Moscow. It could also totally undermine recently implemented plans for RFE/RL to take over radio broadcasting to Russia from the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA).

(In a future post, I’ll explain how the RFE/RL Moscow bureau actually contributed to speeding up Mr. Putin’s secret police action to close down RFE/RL and Voice of America affiliates in Russia, and how the BBG bears most of the responsibility for this state of affairs. The actions ordered by Mr. Putin against independent media could not have been stopped regardless of what RFE/RL did or did not do, but the RFE/RL Moscow Bureau, some BBG members, and their advisors actually believed they could influence Mr. Putin. I’ll write more about this in a new post.)

In an interview for the Association for International Broadcasting “Channel ” magazine, Dr. Gedmin said that “In Russia, three years ago we had about 30 affiliates, today we have about 5. The Russians have used much softer, shrewder tactics, they will send a health inspector or a fire inspector.”

Actually, there was nothing soft or shrewd about these tactics. I think Dr. Gedmin knows it, but he did not want to say it. What he should have said was that the officers of the secret police, the FSB (the new KGB),  called in for questioning station managers who were using RFE/RL and VOA programs and told them to stop their cooperation with U.S. broadcasters or be closed down by health inspectors. Much more serious threats were also used. I know this because I had placed RFE/RL programs on these stations and some of their owners told me in strict confidence about the talks they had with the FSB. (They could be prosecuted for revealing state secrets if they went public with their stories of threats from the secret police.)

Owners of these stations also told me that the directives they kept receiving from the RFE/RL Moscow bureau to register their rebroadcasts with the Russian authorities convinced them that it was time to stop their cooperation with RFE/RL and VOA and that the FSB was already on their trail. They did not see these warnings as motivated by a concern for them at all.

RFE/RL management, however, is still committed to preserving their Moscow bureau operation rather than admitting that the BBG strategy for Russia represents a major programming liability and actually prevents RFE/RL from doing effective surrogate broadcasting. Some might argue that many RFE/RL journalists refused to follow this model, and many did just that. But the overall situation has reached a critical point, and the BBG and the RFE/RL management refuse to admit it.

In the “Channel” magazine interview, Dr. Gedmin said, “The argument will always be ‘we are operating in the framework of the rule of law but the law is either inconsistent with our objectives to practice free journalism or the law is applied in such a way that makes it very difficult for us to do our job or the affiliates to cooperate with us.”

These are good comments from Dr. Gedmin, but what is the BBG doing about this? For one thing, they shut down safe and reliable radio broadcasts to Russia originated by VOA journalists and broadcasters in Washington, D.C.

Interestingly,  in his interview, Dr. Gedmin did not focus on Russia but on Armenia, even though in Russia the problem is far more serious for his concept of surrogate broadcasting. The RFE/RL Moscow bureau is actually practicing what Dr. Gedmin calls “surrogate broadcasting,” and what should be more accurately called “internal broadcasting under the watchful eyes of the secret police.” Even Mr. Gedmin’s comments tend to confirm that RFE/RL is not an independent player in Russia, which the Voice of America, broadcasting from Washington, D.C., has been because of its Congressional Charter, American-trained staff, and location.

Here are some examples from RFE/RL Russian programs, which illustrate why I think RFE/RL faces serious problems in Russia:

Shortly after the murder in 2006 of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the head of RFE/RL Moscow bureau Elena Glushkova said on-air that the work of Radio Liberty journalists cannot cause Russia any harm. According to Ms. Glushkova, RFE/RL reporters respect and love Russia. She also pointed out that all Radio Liberty reporters who work in Russia are Russian citizens. There is nothing wrong with these comments until one considers their timing (they were made in reaction to the brutal murder of an independent investigative journalist).

Speaking after Politkovskaya’s murder, RFE/RL Russian Service managers expressed hope that the Kremlin will allow them to report and broadcast in Russia despite President Putin’s crackdown on local independent media and international broadcasters. Ms. Glushkova said that her optimism was based on her belief in the common sense of the current Russian leadership. Maria Klain, Radio Liberty Russian Service director at the RFE/RL home office in Prague, also expressed confidence that Radio Liberty’s future in Russia looks good.

These comments by Radio Liberty managers surprised and offended some pro-democracy activists in Russia who were still mourning the death of prominent investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Even Dr. Gedmin admitted in an interview for the “Channel” magazine that “journalists [are] intimidated” in Russia. I assume he also meant RFE/RL journalists, but he was not specific on this point and did not dwell on this problem, which has enormous consequences for the RFE/RL’s mission in Russia.

I have questioned whether Radio Liberty can effectively report on controversial events when most of its reporters work and live in Russia, where they are subject to intimidation and pressure from Russia’s secret police and intelligence services. A Moscow-based human rights organization has recently criticized Radio Liberty for giving “air time to racists and ‘ultra-right’ extremists.” But in the Channel magazine interview, RFE/RL president Jeff Gedmin, expressed confidence in the value of “surrogate broadcasting” as “giving people news and information that their own governments deny them, mostly domestic news.”

I think these comments tell the whole story of “surrogate broadcasting” in Russia as it was developed by RFE/RL in response to directives from some of the BBG members. Much of the blame for this rests with the BBG.

Ted Lipien, President

Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin was named president of RFE/RL, Inc. on February 2, 2007. Immediately prior to his appointment, Dr. Gedmin had served since November 2001 as director of the Aspen Institute Berlin. Previously, Dr. Gedmin was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he also served as executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative.

RFE/RL operates under the oversight of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent, autonomous entity responsible for all U.S. government and government-sponsored, nonmilitary, international broadcasting. Under IRS rules, RFE/RL is a private, nonprofit Sec. 501(c) 3 corporation. Chartered in Delaware, it receives federal grants as a private grantee.