Is BBG Missing Opportunities With Its Coverage of the Ukraine Crisis?

Protestors have been gathering in Kiev for months. Protestors have been gathering in Kiev for months. Emilio Morenatti/AP

As the diplo-military face-off in the Ukraine ebbs and flows, debate is swirling over whether the U.S. government-sponsored Ukrainian and Russian-language newscasts are reaching enough people fast enough.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors at its April 11 meeting in Washington convened a panel of employees who’ve shown success working the troubled region for the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the International Broadcasting Bureau.

“One of our key missions as an organization is to surge during critical periods,” BBG Chairman Jeff Shell said. “This has been the case with Ukraine. We are really proud of the work that has been done by our organization, and unfortunately we fear that our work is just beginning.”

The “up to the minute” coverage has included live Web streaming of street clashes as well as fact-checks of claims by Russian-controlled media that have produced “record traffic,” the BBG said in a press release. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian website, radiosvoboda.org, drew nearly 11.9 million visits in March, 84.4 percent of them from Ukraine, the board reported. “The number of visits to many RFE/RL websites has surged, including to the Russian-language svoboda.org, which saw more than 6.7 million visits in March.”

The coverage has included backgrounders on the ethnic divisions within the region as well as video of U.S. lawmakers debating the proper U.S. response to Russian troops crossing borders.

But just as the Obama administration’s response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula had elicited mixed reviews, the BBG’s operations have spawned detractors.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Friday, John Lenczowski, founder of the Institute for World Politics, argued that “the Voice of America shouldn’t be a whisper,” saying, “Moscow has a virtual monopoly on the narrative.”

Blaming budget cuts since 2008 and an Obama team “confused” in its efforts to “reset” relations with Russia, the author criticized the BBG for ending most short-wave radio and TV broadcasts that counter Russian propaganda. Some of the problem, Lenczowski added, traces to Putin’s having shut down the VOA AM broadcast in Moscow “after a BBG subcontractor failed to renew its contract with a local station.” He encouraged Congress to boost the agency’s budget and install the chief executive officer that has long been planned under the BBG’s new management structure.

The BBG’s new Web and social media-oriented offerings have also been faulted by the anonymous current and former BBG employees who run the blog BBGWatch.com. “Voice of America -- Yesterday’s News Tomorrow,” ran the headline on an item mocking VOA’s “embarrassing mistakes” in posting on all of its outlets detailed coverage of an April 13 anti-censorship demonstration in Moscow 24 hours after commercial media covered it.

The blog also criticized VOA for being nearly three hours late on April 14 in reporting that President Obama and Putin had spoken by phone on resolving the crisis, a development that the Moscow-controlled Voice of Russia had first.

In response, BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil told Government Executive that the otherwise “informative” Wall Street Journal op-ed erred in its description of how the AM broadcasts in Moscow ended.

“The Russian information agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) abruptly ended a contractual arrangement for Voice of America to be heard on a local AM station,” she said in an email. That unilateral move capped years of crackdowns on BBG broadcasting that prompted BBG chairman Shell to say publically that Russian authorities were restricting free speech to suppress dissent.

Regarding shortwave radio and TV services to Russia and Ukraine, Weil said the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty programs “do reach Russia on shortwave, and in the past couple of months we have dramatically scaled up radio, TV and digital service to Ukraine and the region in response to the crisis” despite the dangerous environment for news-gatherers. “VOA news is on some of the most widely-watched Ukrainian TV stations in prime time,” she added.

The BBG’s search for a CEO, Weil said, will soon be assigned to an outside firm, with an eye toward naming a candidate this fall.

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