In the latest twist of a dispute roiling U.S. international broadcasting, the audit committee of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is reportedly scheduled to meet later this month to discuss the turmoil sparked by changes in the group’s Russian operations which, according to one veteran dissident, has “harmed the U.S. image here more than the KGB ever could.”
The controversy appears to validate the insistence of a former RFE/RL chief that “we need to fix what’s broken in the broadcasting delivery system.”
After dismissing several leading journalists, the Washington Post’s Kathy Lally reports, “CEO Steven Korn and Julia Ragona, RFE/RL’s vice president, hired Masha Gessen, a Russian American journalist who last year published a book critical of Putin, as the editor, based in Moscow instead of in Prague [site of RFE/RL’s HQ]. But a firestorm erupted as journalists whom Korn and Ragona fired set up an alternative Web site criticizing the changes.”
Former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev has joined many Russian democrats and civil society activists in criticizing the changes, notes Lally:
Gorbachev, who inadvertently helped bring about the demise of the Soviet Union by opening up access to information, said that in light of the recent clampdown by Putin’s government — including laws forcing activists who get grants from abroad to register as foreign agents and the expulsion from Russia of the U.S. Agency for International Development — it looked as if the United States was making “an about-turn.”
Two Russian dissidents, Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Sergei Kovalyov of the Sakharov Foundation, wrote to Congress demanding an investigation. Radio Liberty’s management, Alexeyeva said, had harmed the U.S. image here more than the KGB ever could.
“The fired journalists are in fact some of the most respected independent reporters and new media specialists in Russia,”said Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America acting Associate Director and former BBG regional Marketing Director:
That is why the whole human rights and democratic opposition movement, including Alexeeva, Gorbachev, former Prime Minister Kasyanov, former Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov and countless others, have defended them and turned against Korn, Julia Ragona, Masha Gessen and their new team, whose members have no name recognition in Russia and have lost online audience, more than 50% by some Russian media accounts citing open statistics. These Russian leaders all concluded that Radio Liberty’s reputation in Russia has been ruined and asked for the fired journalists to be rehabilitated and brought back.
Freedom House President David Kramer said that nothing short of a complete housecleaning of the RFE/RL top leadership is required. “The damage they have done is immeasurable,” Kramer said.
“Seven relatively small steps can make a big difference in realizing U.S. international broadcasting’s full potential,” former RFE/RL chief Jeffrey Gedmin, now president of the London-based Legatum Institute, wrote in a recent issue of The American Interest:
First, we must know history better to understand well that few of the current challenges we face are entirely new. It’s true that Cold War clarity of aims helped shape the general purpose of international broadcasting, yet it’s also true that things were never as clear then as we remember them to have been…..
Second, we need to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). As is widely but not universally known, today the family of U.S. international broadcasters—VOA, RFE/RL, Radio Martí, MBN and Radio Free Asia—is overseen by the BBG, which is the outgrowth of several organizational reforms that saw the broadcasting mission go into and then back out of the United States Information Agency. …..
Third, we need to build a strong domestic constituency for broadcasting, which requires repeal of the anachronistic Smith-Mundt Act [which] has prohibited domestic access to information intended for foreign audiences on the grounds that technically…content from U.S. international broadcasting should not be available to the American public. New technologies have rendered Smith-Mundt obsolete anyway, but taking it off the books would help Americans to more fully appreciate—and engage themselves—with the work of international broadcasting. ….
Fourth, we must identify the necessary resources and develop better systems to improve the quality of BBG-sponsored journalism. Journalist training is central to broadcasting’s success. For decades U.S. international broadcasting has been blessed by exceptionally dedicated journalists who share a common belief in pluralism, tolerance and decent accountable government. …
Fifth, we must decentralize the operation. The majority of journalists working for U.S. international broadcasting are based in Washington, DC (headquarters for VOA and Radio Free Asia), in Springfield, Virginia (headquarters for the Middle East Broadcasting Network) and in Prague (headquarters for RFE/RL). This arrangement may make some organizational and bureaucratic sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s journalistically sensible, especially in the case of surrogate broadcasting. Journalists need to be close to the subjects they are covering. …..
Sixth, we should explode the myth that internet and social media have rendered U.S. broadcasting obsolete. It’s true that technology has changed the model, as it has changed the model across journalism. Facebook, Twitter and other social media have meant that monopolies on information are now virtually impossible to maintain and competition abounds. ….
This does not mean, however, that U.S. international broadcasting has outlived its usefulness. In the first place, the new technologies do not give an obvious advantage to “good guys” against “bad guys”, whether the latter are authoritarian governments or authoritarian social and political movements. To assume otherwise is very naive. Moreover, U.S. broadcasting operates with a particular purpose…. It should never be viewed as a values-free proposition.
Finally and centrally, we must place all efforts, including current plans for reorganization, in the context of our purpose and mission. U.S. international broadcasting is guided by American idealism but it is not charity. Its purpose, again, is to advance American interests in the world.
Democracy assistance remains one of the two main objectives of U.S. international broadcasting, says Gedmin.
“Democracy assistance is a sphere of work claimed by Freedom House and the four constituent parts of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED),” he writes:
It is to this conceptual realm that surrogate broadcasting properly belongs, yet there are no strong connections between the BBG and the NED, though both have a similar status as independent government-funded organizations. The BBG should consider merging its two surrogate broadcasters, Radio Free Asia and RFE/RL, and then explore greater collaboration and synergies with the NED, Freedom House and other organizations committed to democracy promotion. Such a merger would connect a broadcasting region that spans Russia, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.