FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien. September 12, 2008, San Francisco — The model website, which the staff of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) says will be used to create a new interactive platform as replacement for broadcasting VOA radio programs to Russia, has solicited no comments from international users despite being up for a few weeks. All VOA radio broadcasts to Russia were terminated on orders from the BBG on July 26. 12 days later Russia attacked Georgia.
FreeMediaOnline.org has obtained a copy of the “VOA Russian Options Paper,” which claims that VOA Russian Service can have a successful Internet-only presence in Russia. This claim is astounding since no other major government broadcaster has dropped its radio programs and opted for Internet-only strategy in targeting an audience of another world power ruled by an authoritarian government. Prime Minister Putin’s government controls most of the domestic media and limits free speech. Its security services have been accused of sabotaging the Internet during the war in Georgia.
The “VOA Russian Options Paper” is remarkable not only for its naive political assumptions, such as using Russian companies believed to be run by the Russian security services in charge of monitoring the Internet. The proposal is also remarkable for its underlying claim that the Voice of America cannot have both radio and Internet presence in Russia at the same time because there is no money for both. The BBG bureaucrats have discovered what nobody else knows: rather than being an engine for improving efficiency and providing an inexpensive forum for exchanging information, the Internet at the BBG can be just as expensive, if not more expensive than traditional broadcast media.
For those like me who have worked in government, the BBG paper is a clear indication that the project would be vastly overpriced, duplicating already existing Internet initiatives, and designed largely for the benefit of government contractors. It does not answer the essential question why for a country that desperately needs uncensored American news and opinions, Internet-only strategy is better than radio-TV-and-Internet strategy. Some people may be fooled that it is all about the money when in fact it is all about bureaucratic politics, conflicts of interest, and well-paid government consultants.
A good indication of how this project might work, or rather how it will fail if the BBG staff remains in charge of its implementation, is the Voice of America’s new USAVotes2008.com interactive website. This is how it was touted in the BBG paper:
The site [new VOA Russian interactive site] would be modeled on VOA’s content-rich election Web site, USAVotes2008.com. USAVotes2008.com provides a platform for social networking about the American election in November.
FreeMediaOnline.org has learned that the model site cost tens of thousands of dollars to develop. Users are encouraged to go to the “Issues” page and leave their comments. The page has been up for a few weeks with no comments from users even though it can be read by anybody in the world with access to the Internet who understands English. Readers of Free Media Online Blog may want to leave some comments on the model VOA site to spare the BBG and the U.S. government any further embarrassment. (Sorry, I could not resist making this comment.)
The great tragedy is, of course, that VOA radio broadcasts to Russia have been terminated at a critical time, as the recent events in Georgia have demonstrated. But on Thursday, when they had a chance to redeem themselves before Congress and the American public, several members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors refused to take a vote to restore these broadcasts, as well VOA radio programs to Georgia, Ukraine and other countries, which are also to be terminated.
These prominent Americans may have been too busy admiring their own new and flashy promotional website with a Home page picture of Buddhist monks, but which has no permanent references to the BBG mission in support of human rights and democracy. The picture is ironic, because the BBG had tried earlier to reduce VOA and Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcasts to Tibet. They had to back down after a group of Tibetan monks staged a peaceful protest on Capital Hill and the U.S. Congress forced the Board to rescind their decision.
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 on restoring VOA broadcasts, which was introduced by a Republican member, radio broadcaster Blanquita Cullum, the only working journalist on the current Board. (The others are political operatives and businessmen, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is an ex officio member.) Faced with the opposition from Hirschberg, Kaufman, and the BBG executive director Jeff Trimble, the remaining BBG members did not support Cullum’s request.
The Internet-only VOA project for Russia is spectacularly risky and depends strongly on the acquiescence of the Putin government. It guarantees that American news from Washington would not reach people in areas of conflict and poverty who have no access to the Internet.
This elitist, cynical and arrogant approach to international broadcasting taken by the BBG was indirectly exposed in a recent letter from the two Co-Chairmen of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, Rep. Jim McDermott and Rep. Joe Wilson, who protested against the planned termination of VOA Hindi radio service to India. They stressed in their letter to the BBG that over 70% of the Indian population lives in rural villages, many with no access to TV or the Internet.
Despite the serious risks and limitations of their plan, Hirschberg, Kaufman and Trimble are said to favor the Internet-only strategy for VOA in Russia largely because it serves their personal preferences and bureaucratic needs. They 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, which is also funded by Congress through the BBG.
These three individuals all have strong personal or political links to this radio 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.
The BBG has already deprived the United States of the powerful symbol represented by VOA radio broadcasts to Russia from the nation’s capital, the center of the American government. Mr. Putin and other Russian officials are not likely to pay any attention to a website they can easily block if a major crisis erupted between the two countries. As to the Internet-only strategy, the example of the Voice of America USAVotes2008.com model website also does not bode well at all for the prospect of reaching large audiences in Russia with news and persuasive American commentary that is untainted by self-censorship and racist messages.
The BBG staff should have noted that Mr. Putin did not bother to go after such websites in Russia because he does not view them as threatening. He did go, however, after independent radio and TV stations and silenced many independent journalists. At least 292 journalists have been killed or have disappeared in Russia since 1990 with very few perpetrators being charged. In any case, the secret police is already sabotaging the Internet and can close down access to unwanted websites at any time.
Russian speakers in Russia and elsewhere already have access to a number of U.S. government sponsored websites, which to a large extent duplicate each other’s work. The State Department’s Russian-language website has much of the same information and looks largely the same as the VOA website. One could suspect that both were designed by the same well-paid outside consultant. There is also the RFE/RL Russian-language website.
The main reason behind the BBG initiative was not to develop yet another VOA Russian website but to deprive the Voice of America of the ability to reach the Russian people with on air radio that cannot be easily igored or completely jammed. We can only speculate why this insane plan succeeded, but the links between Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Senator Biden are well known, and his staff is said to have helped Jeff Trimble take VOA radio off the air in great secrecy in late July so that other members of Congress would not be alerted. Governor Kaufman was a former chief of staff to Senator Biden and is now helping him in his run for the White House. There are then business links between Governor Hirschberg and Russia and his contacts with Mr. Putin’s associates, as well as Jeff Trimble’s own links with RFE/RL and the Russian management of RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau.
But in addition to any larger political and bureaucratic reasons, it is almost certain that most of the money from dropping VOA radio programs would be spent not on VOA Russian broadcasters but on BBG managers and inside Internet specialists, as well as outside consultants who are probably friends and acquaintances of BBG members and their staff. After all, one of the former BBG members — said to be the most recent BBG chairman James Glassman who is now Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs — had suggested that the Board should hire former ABC and CNN television newscaster Paula Zahn as their public relations guru. She had good sense to turn them down.
Congress should likewise refuse to accept the BBG’s termination of VOA radio programs to Russia, Georgia, Ukraine and other countries. VOA must expand its Internet outreach in Russia, but the BBG’s Internet-only strategy will not have any greater impact than the struggling USAVotes2008.com website.
This VOA model website developed under the guidance of the BBG staff is still waiting for you to post your first user comments. Go ahead and do it, but please note that you are a supporter of resuming VOA radio to Russia and to other countries without free media.