Voice of America Russian Service Journalists Blamed for Management’s Failures

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, March 18, 2009, San Francisco — My commentary on the poor state of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, Sexy Images from the Voice of America, has produced  management backlash against the Voice of America Russian Service journalists. It was unfortunate but not unexpected that the Agency’s management, rated by its employees as one of the worst in the Federal government and incapable of appreciating the irony of the commentary, would try to absolve itself of any responsibility and instead blame the journalists who are trying to do their job despite being barred from the airwaves and denied basic resources.

The commentary was written to show that in a flagrant disregard for U.S. foreign policy and human rights interests,  the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) nearly killed the Russian Service and other VOA broadcasting units. Due to the BBG’s actions, the Voice of America no longer has any Arabic-language programs and its broadcasts to many countries have been silenced. The BBG prevents the Russian Service from broadcasting live radio and TV and deprives it of resources to do any kind of serious reporting work, even for the Internet.

VOA sources tell FreeMediaOnline.org that the Service is barely able to assign one journalist to work an eight hour shift on weekends and can spare at most two or three to work the evening shift only Monday through Friday.  Journalistic positions remain unfilled, the service has no director, and the manager in charge of Internet programming  does not speak Russian and has no experience in Russian affairs.

FreeMediaOnline.org was told that the service had no money to send a reporter with Secretary Clinton. VOA Russian Service journalists cannot broadcast live radio and TV programs and therefore cannot cover live news conferences — all because of the BBG-imposed restrictions. VOA English Service has also been deprived of resources and is unable to provide extensive coverage of Russia and U.S.-Russian relations.

FreeMediaOnline.org has developed a special website, GovoritAmerika.us – ГоворитАмерика.us, in an attempt to help VOA’s Russian Service distribute their limited output and to provide additional U.S.-Russia-related news and analysis from various other sources in the United States to compensate for the restrictions placed on VOA by the BBG. None of it is sufficient, however, to repair the damage stemming from the BBG’s actions.

As FreeMediaOnline.org had predicted, the Internet-only strategy, forced on on the Russian Service by the BBG, has caused its annual audience reach to drop from 7.3% (2007) to 0.2% (est.2009) — a staggering and historically unprecedented 98% decline. All other major international broadcasters, including the BBC World Service, managed to hold on to their audiences in Russia in 2008 despite Mr. Putin’s restrictive media policies. None followed the BBG’s lead in completely terminating on-air Russian-language radio and TV broadcasts. What Mr. Putin could not fully achieve, the BBG did it for him. The United States no longer has a credible voice in Russia.

On top of that, BBG officials produced market research showing that Russian audiences like Mr. Putin, don’t want to hear criticism of human rights abuses, and want less politics. VOA Russian Service journalists were told to be less critical and focus more on nonpolitical Internet reporting that would attract more visitors to their site . This is an example of the total misunderstanding of VOA’s mission and the reasons for the public funding for U.S. international broadcasting.

The VOA Russian Service has been starved of resources, given an impossible task and set up to fail, but the BBG and the VOA management would rather blame a team of dedicated journalists rather than the officials who ended VOA radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian invasion of Georgia and refused to resume them.

Here are some excerpts from a note sent today by a VOA Russian Service broadcaster:

We are accused of bad editorial judgement, poor quality of our reporting and all other possible sins. Never mind that we are starved to death financially and in other resources including manpower, and literally barred from the air.

….management WANTED us to report more on culture because “independent monitors” in Russia said so in the program review.

How much of further damage undermining the Russian Service can we endure? I don’t know…