CULLUM: Stifling free speech abroad

Board of Governors abandons U.S. principles

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The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has gone too far, and once again in the wrong direction. To understand why, look no further than a series of outrageous actions taken by the agency to systematically undermine the effectiveness of America’s international broadcasting. As a former member of the BBG, I think the current board has betrayed its mission to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.

Last month, staff members at Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau were sacked unceremoniously. The move was a crucial blow to the integrity of a free press, and those fired were some of the most respected reporters on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty staff. Silencing them via the actions of senior agency officials was a tremendous victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government and its restriction of free speech. Not surprisingly, a number of widely respected Radio Liberty journalists resigned in protest.

This was not an isolated incident or merely an incompetent slip. Since 2008, the BBG and senior officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) have systematically dismantled U.S. government broadcasts to Russia, starting with the elimination of Voice of America’s (VOA) operations there. Even though the termination of VOA was followed shortly by Russia’s invasion of the Republic of Georgia, no effort was made to restore broadcasts to those who lost their liberty.

The hollowed-out VOA Russian website has been compromised by fake “interviews,” virulent anti-American postings and the ever-present threat of being blocked. Not many in Russia can take the website seriously. How could they? It only reaches a minuscule audience.

Why has Russia — in its retrograde movement toward autocracy and an increasingly censored and marginalized media environment — been abandoned by America’s broadcast voice for freedom and democracy? Who is the driving force behind these backward decisions? Just examine certain resumes of the IBB staff for the answer.

The IBB has developed a culture of arrogance, defiance and insubordination. Threats, coercion and intimidation have been used against employees who dare to challenge its actions and conduct. Those Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty-IBB officials don’t have a leg to stand on. Not surprisingly, this agency is ranked as the worst-run in the federal government, according to the annual Human Capital survey (the agency’s employee survey).

Instead of firing veteran journalists and broadcasters and ending critical broadcasts to just about every strategic region in the world, the IBB staff behind this action should be sent packing for having failed the American people and our national interests. The BBG must wake up and remember its mission and its oath. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee must hold hearings to restore the integrity of America’s international broadcasts before it is too late — if it isn’t already.

Blanquita Cullum served on the Broadcasting Board of Governors from 2002 to 2010 and is president and host of “The Hard Question.”

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