FreeMediaOnline.org, Free Media Online Blog, GovoritAmerika.us, July 08, 2009, San Francisco –The Voice of America (VOA) multi-language international news website has been down most of the time during the final day of Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to Moscow as a result of a suspected North Korean cyber attack. Other U.S. government websites were also affected by the same cyber attack, but while many were back in normal operation on Wednesday, July 8, the VOA website was still not working through late Wednesday afternoon, exposing a major flaw in U.S. public diplomacy abroad.
VOA is a U.S. government- funded radio and TV broadcaster with programs in multiple languages, but in recent years it has moved to rely increasingly on the Internet to reach audiences in countries like Russia and China. In 2008, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan body which manages U.S. international broadcasts, eliminated all on-air Voice of America Russian-language radio programs and opted for an Internet-only strategy in Russia. The Federal Human Capital Surveys (FHCS) conducted by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) have consistently rated the BBG as one of the worst-managed Federal agencies.
In 2008, human rights and media freedom organizations, including FreeMediaOnline.org — a San Francisco-based independent journalism NGO, had warned the BBG that when it comes to providing information to countries with limited free media, putting all eggs in one basket by relying only on the Internet program delivery was inappropriate for a major U.S. government international broadcaster. Ignoring such warnings, the BBG stopped all on-air VOA radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian army invaded parts of the Republic of Georgia.
While shutting down live VOA radio and television in Russia last summer, BBG officials argued that the expanded use of the Internet would allow them to counter the Kremlin’s efforts designed to reduce the ability of the Russian public to listen to American news broadcasts through programs placed on local radio and TV stations. But an independent survey showed that after the programs went off the air due to BBG’s decision to rely only on the Internet, VOA audience in Russia shrunk by more than 90%. VOA’s annual reach in Russia through the Internet is now estimated at 0.2%. A BBG memo justifyng the termination of VOA Russian radio did not address the issue of cyber security.
According to inside sources, only one Republican member of the BBG, Blanquita Walsh Cullum — the only working journalist sitting on the bipartisan broadcasting board — protested against adopting Internet-only program delivery strategy for VOA in Russia. Other BBG members, both Republicans and Democrats, including Edward E. Kaufman, Vice President Biden’s former aide who is now a U.S. Senator from Delaware, voted to end VOA radio presence in Russia.
The BBG official website, bbg.gov, has not been affected by the cyber attack, but links from it to the VOA website did not work. According to inside sources, neither BBG nor VOA are prepared for a cyber attack of this magnitude. The International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Internet specialists and contractors, who are employed by the BBG to help VOA run its website, were not able to quickly work around the problem. The BBG website provided no information about the cyber attack on the Voice of America. Radio Free Asia (RFA) — another broadcaster managed by the BBG, which also broadcasts radio programs in Korean and has a Korean-language website — may have been targeted by the latest cyber attack but managed to keep its website working.
Commenting on the latest cyber attack against the Voice of America website, Ted Lipien, president and founder of FreeMediaOnline.org, said that the Internet plays a critical role in bringing information to countries under government censorship, but he added that the BBG made a serious mistake when it ended on-air VOA radio programs in Russian. “If North Korean hackers can shut down the VOA website, security services of other countries can easily do the same, especially in time of a major international crisis. It may be coincidence that the suspected North Korean cyber attack happened during President Obama’s historic visit to Moscow, but Internet users in Russia were effectively prevented from learning from the Voice of America about the U.S. president’s meeting with Russian opposition leaders. The democratic opposition in Russia criticizes President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, a former KGB spy, of stifling independent media,” Lipien said.
Ted Lipien is a journalist, media marketing expert and a former acting associate director of the Voice of America. He was in charge of VOA broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity pro-democracy movement and is the author of a book about Pope John Paul II’s views on feminism, Wojtyla’s Women, which has several references to the importance of Western radio broadcasts as well as to KGB’s attempts to manipulate media reports about the Polish pope.
In response to restrictions imposed on the Voice of America in Russia by the BBG members and their executive staff, FreeMediaOnline.org launched an independent Russian-language news aggregator website, GovoritAmerica.us, which provides news analysis from both U.S. government and non-government sources for Russian-speaking Internet users. GovoritAmerika.us was not affected by the latest cyber attack.
The volunteer-run GovoritAmerika.us website had summaries of many of the news stories related to President Obama’s visit to Russia, including Voice of America reports which could not be seen on the official VOA website due to the suspected North Korean cyber attack.