VOA Director Testifies Before Congress About Strategy in Russia and Cyber Attack on VOA Website But Serious Mistakes Go Unreported

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org, Free Media Online Blog, GovoritAmerika.us, July 23, 2009, San Francisco — Voice of America director Dan Austin had a hard job explaining before Congress the broadcasting and program delivery strategy for Russia and the cyber attack that shut down the VOA website, including its Russian-language site, for at least two full days during President Obama’s visit to Russia earlier this month. His testimony was most revealing in how damaging information was being obscured from members of Congress and American taxpayers.

VOA Russian annual Reach

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages VOA, stopped all on-air Voice of America radio and television broadcasts in Russian just 12 days prior to the Russian military attack on Georgia last summer. Largely as a result of this action, VOA’s annual audience reach in Russia dropped by 98% to an estimated level of just 0.2%, which was the prior reach of VOA in Russia on the Internet.

VOA Capital Hill correspondent Dan Robinson reported that “Lawmakers are concerned about obstacles in places like China, Iran and Russia to the free flow of information and independent reporting. The role U.S. government-funded broadcasters play in overcoming these barriers was the main focus of a Europe subcommittee hearing.

Members of Congress have condemned Iranian government restrictions on the Internet, and criticized steps by the Chinese government to tighten surveillance of Internet traffic, and government pressure on radio, television and print outlets in Russia.

Referring to the impact of technology amid post-election turmoil in Iran, the panel chairman Democrat Robert Wexler said VOA and RFE/RL play a crucial role as ‘smart power tools’ as the U.S. faces foreign policy challenges, anti-Americanism, and efforts by governments to suppress media.” more

Voice of America director Danford Austin:

“In Russia, we are now a multi-media web-based service produced for a country where Internet usage is growing rapidly,” said Danforth Austin. “At a very critical juncture in U.S.-Russia relations, this strategy allows audiences to increase their understanding of American policies, politics and culture and American views of Russia. It also frankly galvanizes conversation among its audience through utilization of these so-called Web 2.0 tools.” more

The anecdotal and largely meaningless statistics for Russia, which the VOA director selected for presentation to Congress, were designed to draw attention away from the real issues: how many Russians have access to the VOA website in Russia (about 0.2% annually); the lack of any significant interaction by the small number of VOA site visitors; the departure of talented TV and radio journalists; inability to take advantage of TV and radio broadcasting in response to changes in U.S.-Russian relations; the lack of any significant impact on the political discussion and media scene in Russia. VOA Capitol Hill correspondent Dan Robinson:

“Critics say the decision by the non-partisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which oversees U.S. international broadcasting to end Russian-language radio and television broadcasts in favor of an Internet-focused approach damaged efforts to maintain the flow of news to people in the country.”

VOA director offered a rather lengthy and somewhat confusing explanation of the shutdown of the VOA website during President Obama’s visit to Russia:

“The Denial of Service (DoS) cyber-attack against the VOA web site on July 5 was part of a wide scale attack that targeted Korean and US government sites, financial sites, and some news sites. VOA’s core computer systems were never affected and there was no loss of any agency information technology asset. The voanews.com web site is hosted off-site, and all public traffic to it was affected, most severely from the Asia-North America axis, with local access problems elsewhere, such as within Russia. The attack prevented many users from reaching the site (and all the other targeted sites) for several hours until Korea, the suspected source of the attacks, was cut-off by many of the Internet Service Providers (ISP). As the suspect machines were quarantined by Korean ISPs and others, the attacks slowed and Korea access was re-established. VOA traffic from Asia since has reached near normal levels and non-Asian traffic is completely back to normal levels. Our production systems are behind firewalls and intrusion detection systems, which functioned well, and both servers and desktop machines are updated with security patches at least once per day. Working with our web distribution contractors, we now have predictive systems in place that can isolate the source of DoS attacks much more promptly.”

In simple words, the testimony can be reduced to a few facts: despite warnings from VOA journalists, members of Congress, and media freedom organizations like FreeMediaOnline.org, the BBG ended all VOA radio and TV Russian-language broadcasts to Russia last summer opting for the Internet-only program delivery strategy. Shortly after VOA radio in Russian went of the air, Russian troops attacked Georgia. The BBG refused urgent appeals from VOA journalists to resume these broadcasts. Within a relatively short period, VOA’s annual audience reach in Russia dropped by about 98%, and is now well below 1%. The BBG failed to provide security for the VOA website. The VOA website was unavailable in Russia during President Obama’s visit not just on June 05 but for at least two full days.

The Russian media largely ignored President Obama’s major speech to the graduates of the New Economic School in Moscow, in which he defended democratic institutions and media freedom while calling for bringing an end to the Cold War mentality in US-Russian relations. VOA was both silent and invisible in Russia during the speech. And even if its website had not been blocked, the lead U.S. international broadcaster no longer has the capability to engage with the Russian media in serious interactive TV and radio broadcast journalism. The Obama White House, which still lacks a public diplomacy team and direction, did not do much better. It released a video promoting the speech 10 days after it was delivered. The video had not been translated into Russian.