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Worldcasting: U.S. Fails to Fight Russian Government Censorship of VOA/Radio Liberty News Broadcast

Jul 13, 2006

To be or not to be -- A 'Re-Jiggered' U.S. Information Agency

That is the question, or one of them anyway, as to how America's public diplomacy efforts may be ratcheted back up to speed.

My recent "F" grade to those who pine for a reassembled USIA is challenged by former Director Bruce S. Gelb, who headed the U.S. Information Agency from 1989-91. He contends that:

… [A]ll the "transformational" BS and the re-jiggering of the half-man half-beast organization that purports to be the 21st century upgrade of the once effective USIA just doesn’t work and cannot work period.

But a highly respected former USIA Foreign Service officer who wished to remain anonymous does not believe the Agency's rebirth will come any time soon. "As for recreating USIA, I am not aware of anyone seriously considering the matter. Much talk, but little real action."

Others say our PD grades are too generous. A former employee of the American government's Alhurra TV, Magdi Khalil, disagrees with the "B" grade awarded to his former channel and Radio Sawa. "Alhurra is not as much American as it is Arab -- with the typical flaws and mediocrity of an Arab news media," he offers.

John Ferguson, president American Voices, takes issue with my too-early-to-tell "C" grade for the State Department's diverse public diplomacy efforts. He gives it an "F." "Outreach through mass media is good, but we need much more exchange, cultural and speaker programs to be truly effective," he writes.

As for remaining mid-year grades, I first pose a question to you public diplomacy handicappers out there:

Can you name an American international broadcasting service that was the prototype for today's Fox News Channel?

Here are some hints:

The vintage broadcast service displayed an "attitude," or an "edge," if you prefer, for many years before there was a Fox News Channel, and touted itself as “fair and balanced“ in its domestic and international reporting. Its news coverage ventured where no local or regional media had gone before, which resonated with many in the audience, but detractors sullied the news service as biased.

Ah, you’ve got it! The answer is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and, of course, Voice of America.

So what's the point? The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty still have that edge to which audiences in Russia are attracted.

Why else would dozens of Russian radio stations have partnered with those American-funded stations to carry their news broadcasts? It is because audiences in Russia still like to hear what they have to say. And it is why Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, as Worldcasting reported last August, has effectively blocked news reports from RFE/RL and Voice of America by threatening to revoke the broadcast licenses of partner Russian affiliate stations that carry those broadcasts. Dozens of stations in Russia have now dropped the broadcasts because President Putin does not like their news reports about Russia's domestic problems.

This would seem to be the Perfect Storm for Washington, especially for those who manage the purse strings for the U.S. government's non-military international broadcasts -- the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Why not increase funding for the stations that are on a roll, make the case to Congress, go to the UN, pursue other affiliate stations in Russia who want to build their audiences? Instead, the BBG capitulates to Mr. Putin by proposing to Congress to end VOA's Russian language broadcasts, as well as reduce English language programs.

While Worldcasting understands the pressure to shore up programming to the Middle East to combat terrorism, we feel Congress ought to ask the BBG to get back to basics and find the money elsewhere to keep the core enterprises of VOA and RFE/RL in tact. There ought to be a sign hung on the core businesses of America's international broadcast treasures -- Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty: "Do Not Touch."

A decade ago it seemed to some a good idea to re-jigger the U.S. Information Agency but it turned out not to be such a great idea after all. Just ask Bruce Gelb.

And so the BBG gets an "F," but it can turn that around next semester by hitting the history books. As for VOA and RFE/RL, they remain at the head of the class.

Comments

My grandfather was a reporter/broadcaster for VOA broadcasting to Armenia in the 1970-80s. I know for a fact from personal conversations with individuals across the former Soviet Union that these types of programs truly work to not only inform, but change minds by using truth, as that is the only reliable way to communicate effectively. The continuous downsizing of the budgets for such important programs is a tragedy that needs to be remedied before causing further irreparable damage.

The cost of WorldNet was a fraction of the cost of contracts now being given to the Washington based start up called Lincoln Group to "influence" public opinion around the Middle East and rest of the world.

The focus of USG satellite delivered public diplomacy has shifted from the VOA/Worlnet model to a military funded PsyOps one of seeding misinformation and bribing foreign and planted "journalists", then letting the news organizations disseminate the planted propaganda. This is a dangerous, and irresponsible trend, which already has failed in the most public way.

With each hundred million dollar contract from the Pentagon the repair process gets harder. Charlie Wick had the right idea, but beauracrats messed up!

The primary focus should not be going head to head with Putin, or saturating the Middle East, but doing damage control with the dwindling core of US Allies, before they too become a history lesson. Sorry Mr. Gelb, you should have read the original concepts before re-jigging into a bureacratic nightmare!

And the answer to success does not lie within the beltway!

The news reports from Moscow on the punitive actions taken against stations cooperating with Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty show that the indifference to the cause of supporting media freedom will have disastrous long-term effects. In response to the BBG decision, one of Russia's NGOs working to defend media freedom and human rights wrote to VOA:

"Russian society lacks balanced opinions, varying viewpoints, all of which your journalists have mastered. VOA for all these years has been a symbol of freedom of speech. The closure of the service would lead not only to less truthful information on the air, but will be a meaningful signpost on the way to Russia's crawling back to the epoch of silence and lies."

The United States needs a consistent strategy for defending and promoting freedom of expression throughout the world, not just in the Middle East. It is the best and relatively inexpensive insurance against future security threats, including terrorism.

Had the BBG done its job in anticipating problems and reforming the bureaucracy behind U.S. international broadcasting, the cuts in radio broadcasts to Russia would have never been proposed.

The Bush Administration and the Broadcasting Board of Governors have failed to protect one of America�s most effective tools for communicating with audiences in Eurasia � a region which still lacks free press, is exposed to anti-American propaganda, and is threatened by religious and ethnic conflicts.

The governments and the populations of these countries can either support or undermine U.S. attempts to create a safer world. The decision to stop VOA radio broadcasts to Russia and other countries in Eurasia, many of them with large Muslim populations, was incredibly ill-informed and foolish. The Congress needs to step in and reverse this decision.

Before retiring from the Voice of America as acting associate director, I had managed VOA broadcasts to Eurasia and their placement on local media outlets. I am now running FreeMediaOnline.org, a nonprofit organization helping independent journalists in media-at-risk countries. My email address is: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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The HIR also contains articles pertaining to the curtailment of Russian civil liberties and covers the infringment of other human rights by countries such as India and China. I encourage you to read further at: http://www.harvardir.org/blog/

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