FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, September 8, 2008, San Francisco — Perhaps Paula Zahn, formerly of CNN and ABC, could have explained to the White House, the U.S. Congress and the American people why the Voice of America (VOA) Russian-language radio programs were not being heard in the war zone in Georgia, or in Russia itself, when the Russian troops invaded their small neighbor on August 8. Twelve days earlier, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which tried to hire Paula Zahn as their public relations guru, had shut down all VOA radio broadcasts to Russia, and was about to shut down VOA radio to Georgia. But Paula Zahn will not be calling the White House or the Vice President’s Office with a message to ignore complaints from human rights activists in Georgia and Ukraine, the two countries under pressure from Russia Mr. Cheney visited last week. The BBG failed to hire Paula Zahn because in the end she turned them down.
The same small group of now five Americans (not counting Condoleezza Rice who is an ex officio member of the BBG) had tried earlier to reduce VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet and to a number of other countries without free media. They justify these moves as designed to save money for other projects, including the mismanaged broadcasting to the Middle East and the expansion of news websites. Sources have told FreeMediaOnline.org, however, that the BBG was planning to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on enhancing its public relations efforts, including the beefing up of its own promotional website, which they launched today. The BBG, which is a bipartisan body, is responsible for making sure U.S. taxpayers’ money is spent wisely on international broadcasts.
According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, the BBG has consistently put a high priority on itself while cutting and reducing U.S. broadcasts to people around the world who are deprived of free access to information and live under repressive regimes. Most of the BBG members are successful U.S. businessmen and political operatives with no experience of life under dictatorship or significant activism in defense of human rights. These Democrats and Republicans are appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Inside sources have told FreeMediaOnline.org that Paula Zahn had good sense to decline the job offer. No reason for her refusal was mentioned, but she may have learned of the outrage among the human rights activists after the BBG had announced plans to reduce VOA and Radio Free Asia (RFA) programs to Tibet. After protests by the Tibetan monks on Capital Hill, the U.S. Congress, which was opposed to any reduction of programming to Tibet, stepped in and forced the BBG to reverse its decision.
The same sources also told FreeMediaOnline.org that only one BBG member, radio broadcaster Blanquita Cullum, questioned the decision to hire a media celebrity while radio programs to countries without free press were being cut. She was reported to have said that if the rest of the Board proceeded with hiring a new high profile spokesperson, “it would be over her dead body.” Cullum, who is a Republican, is also said to be the only member of the bipartisan Board who has consistently opposed U.S. radio programming cuts to countries without free media.
FreeMediaOnline.org reported earlier that the Senate Staff of Senator Joe Biden worked with some of the BBG members and their executive director to help them take VOA radio programs to Russia off the air despite strong opposition to this move from most of the other members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats. Shutting down VOA Russian-language broadcasting is seen as helpful to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) — a semi-private station also managed by the BBG — which is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state. RFE/RL has also been steeped in controversy. A human rights organization in Russia has recently criticized RFE/RL for giving airtime to an extremist Russian politician known for expressing racist views about immigrants.
Other critics have suggested that airing of such programs by RFE/RL journalists, who are Russian citizens working and living in Russia with their families — where they are exposed to intimidation by the Kremlin’s secret police — makes RFE/RL unsuitable to be the only radio voice of American taxpayers in Russia and to reflect American values. The Voice of America programs to Russia, which were cut by the BBG, were produced by journalists based in Washington, D.C.
The BBG members who supported cutting VOA programs to Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, and Tibet are: Joaquin Balaya, chairman of Balaya Media Inc.; Jeff Hirschberg, a partner of in Kalorama Partners, a consulting firm that deals with corporate governance and risk assessment and a director of the U.S-Russia Business Council; Edward E. Kaufman, Senator Biden’s former chief of staff who is now president of Public Strategies, a political and management consulting firm based in Wilmington, Delaware; and Steven J. Simmons, chairman and CEO of Patriot Media and Communications, LLC.
Three seats on the Board currently are empty, after the recent departure of former BBG Chairman James K. Glassman, who also favored program cuts at VOA. Glassman is now the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, Glassman was responsible for proposing to hire Paula Zahn.
A statement issued recently by the leadership of the Voice of America employees’ union, AFGE Local 1812, said that the Broadcasting Board of Governors “has been responsible for one blunder after another — to the point that its actions have compromised U.S. strategic interests.” Saying that “the elimination of Russian and Georgian radio broadcasts should be the last straw,” the VOA employees’ union leaders called on Congress to act immediately to dissolve the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG announced that Wednesday, September 10, it is sponsoring a workshop on “New Media vs. New Censorship: The Authoritarian Assault on Information.”
The newly redesigned BBG website, launched at a considerable cost to U.S. taxpayers a few weeks after cutting VOA radio to Russia, says that the Board’s mission is “to promote freedom and democracy.” That statement, however, does not appear on the “Home” page or “About the Agency” page; it can only be found by searching the site. At least 292 journalists have been murdered or have disappeared in Russia since 1990. The Reporters Without Borders, a media freedom nonprofit organization, said in its 2008 annual report on Russia that “the government and security forces did all they could to stop the media reporting on Putin’s opponents.”