FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, September 5, 2008, San Francisco — Even as Vice President Cheney visits Ukraine to show U.S. support for that country in the face of pressure from Russia, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), has not given up on its plan to cut the Voice of America (VOA) Ukrainian radio news broadcasts from Washington, D.C. Twelve (12) days before Russia attacked Georgia on August 8, the BBG quietly ended all VOA on-air radio broadcasts to Russia.
The BBG also planned to shut down VOA radio to Georgia, but the Russian invasion temporarily prevented that move. The BBG plans to end all Voice of America on-air radio broadcasts to Ukraine by October 1, 2008 and keep only its Internet and television services. Ted Lipien, president of media freedom nonprofit FreeMediaOnline.org, said that television and Internet are far less effective than radio in an emergency and could not easily reach areas under conflict or occupation, as was demonstrated during the war in Georgia.
The BBG has been criticized by members of Congress and media freedom organizations for ignoring censorship in the region and being unprepared for a news emergency. The BBG claims that radio broadcasting to Russia can be better done from Moscow and Prague by the semi-private Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Ted Lipien — who was earlier acting associate director of VOA and helped BBG place programs on stations in Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq — said, however, that RFE/RL journalists and resources in Russia are now dangerously exposed to intimidation and control by the Russian secret police. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IJF), 292 Russian journalists have been killed or have disappeared since 1990. Many RFE/RL journalists live and work in Russia. Lipien said that as Russian citizens, these journalists are extremely vulnerable now and would be even more endangered in case of a regional crisis. News reports have also suggested that the Russian secret police is actively trying to gain control over the media in Ukraine.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors has said that VOA Georgian radio will continue “for the foreseeable future,” but reduced to only four persons, the VOA Georgian Service is working under a great strain. The BBG reiterated that “the Administration’s FY 2008 budget, as approved by Congress, provided that all BBG broadcasting to Georgia was to be done by RFE/RL after September 30, 2008.” It failed to mention that this decision originated with the BBG and that many members of Congress specifically objected to this plan even as they voted for the overall budget. In previous years, Congress had stopped some of the BBG-proposed program cuts to countries where media is still at risk. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said that his Senate committee intended to provide funding “for broadcasting in languages which the Administration proposed to eliminate in FY09, such as Russian, Kazak, Uzbek, Tibetan and the to the Balkans, where freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary.”
This year Senator Joe Biden’s staff was said to have worked with the BBG to implement the elimination of the Voice of America radio to Russia before the rest of the Congress could act to stop this move. RFE/RL, which will benefit from program cuts at VOA, is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state. FreeMediaOnline.org president pointed out that while RFE/RL could be very effective under different circumstances, its large operation in Moscow and pressures from the Russian secret police have endangered its mission. Lipien also said that Voice of America journalists, working in the safe environment of Washington, D.C., are able to accurately reflect and present American news and opinions to audiences in Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.
There was no immediate reaction from the BBG to Vice President Cheney’s visit to Georgia and Ukraine or to President Bush’s announcement of a $1 billion aid package for Georgia.