U.S. Board Blocks Use of AM Frequency in Moscow for Voice of America Russian Broadcasts

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog  September 24, 2008, San Francisco — A U.S. broadcaster is denied access to a radio frequency in the Russian capital. The censor in this case is not the Kremlin, as one might expect, but the U.S. government agency which manages U.S. taxpayer-funded international broadcasts. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is preventing the Voice of America (VOA) from using an AM frequency in Moscow for its Russian-language radio programs, even though the Russian authorities still allow the frequency to be occupied by VOA. The same bipartisan Board ignored directives from Congress and terminated all on air VOA Russian radio broadcasts on July 26, just 12 days before the Russian army attacked Georgia.

The BBG’s plan also called for ending VOA radio programs to Georgia, Ukraine, India and a few other countries. After the most recent Russian military intervention in the Caucasus, the Voice of America director Dan Austin has asked the Board for permission to temporarily continue  VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine. He is said to be also considering asking the BBG to allow him to resume radio broadcasting to Russia, but he faces strong bureaucratic opposition from the Board’s executive director Jeff Trimble and his staff.

The 810khZ AM frequency in Moscow, which is leased by the BBG, is now used to rebroadcast VOA English programs. BBC and other international broadcasters also lease similar AM frequencies in Moscow. The Russian authorities have forced nearly all private radio stations to terminate similar rebroadcasting arrangements with Western public broadcasters but have not yet decided what to do with the government-controlled AM frequencies in the Russian capital. Taking a direct action against all Western broadcasters at the same time could result in bad PR for the Kremlin, which may explain why these broadcasters are still on the air in Moscow.

At least for now the 810kHz frequency is working and the Voice of America could use it to broadcast several hours of Russian-language programming daily. The BBG, however, has been steadfastly rejecting urgent appeals from VOA Russian staffers to allow them to produce a radio show that could be aired in the Russian capital. Despite the growing media censorship in Russia, these federal government employees charged with facilitating free flow of information were ordered by the BBG to limit their audio production from several hours to 10 min. daily and to become an Internet-only news provider.

VOA Russian service broadcasters say they are deeply demoralized and underemployed.  They complain that resources paid for by U.S. taxpayers are wasted while the bipartisan U.S. government Board denies radio listeners in Russia access to Russian-language news from Washington. While there is a serious risk of the AM frequency in Moscow being shut down by the Kremlin, VOA employees reported that the BBG is also preventing them from producing a regularly scheduled radio program that could be broadcast on shortwave frequencies controlled by the U.S. government. They also said that the BBG staff won’t even allow them to create a regularly scheduled extended radio broadcast that could be placed on the Web.

FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit, reported that by terminating VOA radio to Russia the BBG has acted against the wishes of the majority of members of Congress from both parties but received support from the Senate staff of Senator Joe Biden. The BBG action will benefit the semi-private broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which is incorporated in Delaware and also managed by the BBG. Both Democrats and Republicans on the BBG, with the exception of only one Republican member, voted to stop VOA radio programs to Russia. One of those voting to terminate VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, Georgia, Ukraine,and India was Ted Kaufman, who was formerly Senator Biden’s chief of staff and is now assisting him with the vice presidential campaign. BBG executive director Jeff Trimble was formely acting president of RFE/RL and engineered the silencing of VOA radio in Russia.

According to Ted Lipien, FreeMediaOnline.org president and former VOA acting associate director, the BBG staff won’t allow VOA Russian radio programs to be aired in Moscow because it wants to protect the interests of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “This action seriously damages the ability of the American people to communicate with the people in Russia. It also undermines America’s support for media freedom,” Lipien said.

Most of Radio Liberty reporters, who under the BBG plan would be the only producers of U.S. radio programming in the Russian language, are Russian citizens working and living with their families in Russia. Ted Lipien said that in light of the Kremlin’s crackdown on the media what RFE/RL employees need most is protection from the Russian secret police and are in no position to  replace VOA in presenting American news and opinions to radio listeners in Russia. Lipien called the BBG’s decision to block the use of the AM frequency in Moscow for VOA Russian programs “one of the most blatant acts of bureaucratic selfishness and a foreign policy blunder that rewards Mr. Putin.”