What Would Barack Obama Say If He Knew…
Commentary by Ted Lipien
FreeMediaOnline.org, San Francisco, August 29, 2008 — Why would U.S. taxpayers want to help a nationalist Russian politician spread his racist and anti-immigrant views on a radio station, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)? Radio Liberty is based in Moscow and Prague but is managed by the bipartisan broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), sitting in Washington, D.C., which takes money from the U.S. Congress.
The answer is, neither U.S. taxpayers nor members of Congress would tolerate for a moment the misuse of their good name and money, if they only knew about it.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors knows well about such broadcasts. (BBG-managed Alhurra Television for the Middle East gave airtime to an extremist who had called for killings of American soldiers in Iraq.) When such broadcasts are exposed, the BBG tries to put the blame on individual managers and journalists, when in fact it bears a direct responsibility for having put in place policies that permit such broadcasts to go on the air in the first place. But rather than change its policies, it lets these outrages to continue.
Recently, the Moscow Human Rights Bureau has criticized Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) for giving an entire hour of airtime to a former Russian Parliament deputy Andrey Savel’yev. The Russian human rights organization said that Mr. Savel’yev’s “chauvinist and racist views are well-known.” This may not mean much to most Americans, but it should. Those who are not familiar with racist politics in Russia should read Clifford J. Levy report from Moscow for the “New York Times” (August 28, 2008) about another Russian nationalist politician, Russia’s current representative to NATO, Dimitri O. Rogozin. He hung a poster of Stalin in his office in Brussels. The political party he led in Russia published “anti-immigrant ads showing dark-skinned immigrants throwing watermelon rinds on the ground.” Should U.S. taxpayers subsidize extensive interviews with Russian politicians connected with similar racist propaganda on a radio station managed by a group of prominent Americans?
In criticizing Radio Liberty for giving airtime to Mr. Savel’yev, the Russian human rights organization said Radio Liberty was guilty not only of enabling such people “to spread their poisonous views,” but also of legitimizing their ideas “in the minds of many impressionable radio listeners.” The appeal, written by the organization’s head Aleksandr Brod, argues that stations, which “in their pursuit of higher ratings” invite such “nationalist radicals,” are giving these enemies of democracy a larger audience and exacerbating ethnic tensions.
RFE/RL management may argue that giving one hour of airtime to a nationalist politician whose “chauvinist and racist views are well known,” is legitimate under the principles of news reporting and journalistic freedom. The BBG may think the same since recently they have eliminated all Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia originating from Washington, D.C. (12 days before Russia attacked Georgia.) They want Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which opens its studios in Moscow to nationalist, anti-immigrant extremists, be the only on-air radio voice in Russia for the American taxpayers.
I completely disagree with the BBG logic. When I worked as a journalist at the Voice of America between 1973 and 1993, we did on occasion interview reform-minded and even hardline communist officials and reported on their statements, but we would never have given them one hour of airtime, or even anything close to 10 minutes. If they said something newsworthy, we would report it. But the extent of coverage we would devote to their statements would be determined by our commitment to promoting truthful reporting and journalistic freedom. These officials, even the ones viewed as communist reformers, saw interviews with Western journalists as an opportunity to influence public opinion without giving up their regime’s control over domestic media. Most of them were not known for holding extreme racist views, but we would still not give them any kind of significant access to our airwaves knowing that they were responsible for silencing democratic dissent. We were not going to reward them by letting them promote their policies at our expense.
During the Cold War, when RFE/RL was based in Munich, Germany, Radio Liberty broadcasters followed the same approach as VOA broadcasters to airing views by the opponents of democracy. The reason Radio Liberty no longer follows these rules is a direct result of the policies adopted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Former and current BBG members — Norman Pattiz, Edward E. Kaufman, and Jeff Hirschberg — all Democrats with links to Senator Biden, have been for years supporting the expansion of Radio Liberty broadcasts from Moscow and Prague and trying to silence Voice of America Russian broadcasts from Washington. (All the Republicans on the BBG, with perhaps one exception, also supported these policies and joined forces with the Democrats.)
Obviously these distinguished Americans are not racists and they see themselves as defenders of freedom and democracy, yet they ignored warnings from Congress and from human rights organization and made decisions that have profoundly negative consequences for media freedom in Russia and in many other countries. (They also wanted to eliminate Voice of America radio broadcasts to Georgia and several other countries where media is censored and under government control. And they shut down VOA Russian radio broadcasts without making any public announcements that could have alerted ahead of time members of Congress and human rights activists.)
Several members of the BBG have strong backgrounds investing in commercial media and communications industry in a free market economy, but none of them had experienced what it means to live under a totalitarian dictatorship. They do not know first hand what it means to be forced to receive information and opinions from only one source of government-sponsored nationalist propaganda. Apparently, they have no clue what defenders of democracy in Russia must feel when they hear a racist politician on U.S.-taxpayer-funded Radio Liberty or what they must feel when they find out at about the same time that the Voice of America will not longer have radio programs in Russian from the United States.
There are no African Americans serving on the Broadcasting Board of Governors who could have reacted strongly to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty giving airtime to a racist politician. Although the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is an ex officio BBG member, she does not personally attend the Board’s meetings and most likely has not heard about the RFE/RL broadcast and the human rights organization’s protest. The lone BBG member who was reported questioning the Board’s policies in Russia and has spoken up against discontinuing Voice of America Russian radio programs is the only working journalist/broadcaster on the current Board. Blanquita Cullum, a woman with Hispanic and immigrant roots and experience in radio journalism, was said to have warned the other BBG members of the danger of underestimating Mr. Putin’s campaign against independent media. For the other BBG members — successful businessmen with experience in commercial U.S. broadcasting — shutting down VOA radio to Russia was primarily a business decision influenced by a desire to accommodate bureaucratic allies. The next president, whoever he is, would do well appointing BBG members whose main qualification is experience in journalism and defending human rights rather than the size of their financial contributions to political parties and political loyalty.
By putting a great number of Radio Liberty broadcasters in Russia within the reach of Mr. Putin’s secret police and telling them they need to have programs that would appeal to and attract a large audience, the current Board completely undermined the traditional commitment of U.S. international broadcasting to democratic values and journalistic independence. The BBG also exposed vulnerable RFE/RL journalists to blackmail and other forms of intimidation and pressure from Russia’s security services.
Mr. Pattiz, who has since resigned from the BBG, was the architect of the business-driven model of international broadcasting, in which ratings have been presented as more important than content. He was also the biggest supporter of outsourcing U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasts to semi-private entities with a large number of contracting jobs overseas while at the same time shutting down Voice of America operations in the United States staffed by federal U.S. workers.
Giving extensive airtime to a nationalist Russian politician and earlier comments made by Radio Liberty’s managers in Russia also make it clear that RFE/RL no longer engages in “surrogate broadcasting,” as this radio station did with great distinction during the Cold War. By “surrogate” I mean alternative broadcasting based on specific values that most Americans would agree with rather than internal broadcasting conducted under the watchful eye of Mr. Putin’s secret police agents. They no doubt rejoice that a station funded by American taxpayers gives airtime to nationalist extremists, some of whom may very well be controlled by the security services.
To find out — why the BBG model of relying on large news bureau operations in countries where the secret police is in charge of the local media is dangerous, does not promote press freedom, and cannot be called “surrogate broadcasting” — Read: Radio Liberty Russian managers put a positive spin on Putin’s comments about the murder of a pro-democracy journalist. The article shows the appalling reaction of Radio Liberty managers to the murder of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
The Russian human rights organization observed that stations such as Radio Liberty may try to defend themselves by saying that they invite racists and extremists “not to help spread the ideas of the latter but rather to ensure that all points of view are presented, and thus to allow the extremists to expose the weakness of their positions relative to those of others.” But the Russian human rights activists, as well as Voice of America journalists and many Radio Liberty journalists who are familiar with their station’s principles before the BBG took over, know that, especially under the conditions of totalitarian and authoritarian rule, a society “should defend itself from the ideas of racism and hatred of everything human.” The Moscow Human Rights Group believes that such broadcasts promote racial violence. “Under conditions like those in contemporary Russia,” their statement says, “such ideas are ‘directly’ applied in the streets.” Many immigrants, including Africans, have been beaten up and some have been killed by nationalist extremists in Russia.
The Senate Staff of Senator Biden was said to have worked with some BBG members and BBG staff to shut down VOA Russian radio despite strong bipartisan opposition in Congress to this idea. One of their objectives was to use some of the savings to beef up Radio Liberty operations. RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state. Mr. Pattiz, the billionaire founder of Westwood One radio empire, is one of Senator Biden’s rich backers.
I wonder if Barak Obama had a chance to read the “New York Times” report about racist media campaigns in Russia, what he would say about his running mate’s extraordinary support for Radio Liberty? How would he react to the BBG’s decision to stop VOA Russian radio broadcasts from Washington just days before the Russian attack on Georgia? And if he saw what kind of racist ads nationalist parties in Russia use to intimidate immigrants, what would he say about Radio Liberty’s interview with a nationalist Russian politician who was accused by a human rights organization of spreading “chauvinist and racist views?”
Would the Democratic Party nominee for president be upset that American taxpayers paid for the broadcast and that the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ faulty policies allowed it to happen? I think Senator Obama would be upset. I also hope that this will be a lesson for the BBG to change its policies and reverse some of their most damaging decisions.
This commentary was written by FreeMediaOnline.org president Ted Lipien. He was an acting associate VOA director until 2006. Earlier, he had been in charge of VOA broadcasts to Poland and managed broadcasting to Russia and other countries in Eurasia. He was also responsible for placing VOA, RFE/RL and other BBG-funded programs on local radio stations in Russia, Georgia, Afganistan, Bosnia, Iraq, and many other media-at-risk countries. In his recently published book on Pope John Paul II and feminism, he describes Polish secret police and KGB attempts to place spies at the Vatican and to influence broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America.