In President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget request to Congress that never passed, officials proposed to end U.S.-funded radio broadcasts to Chechnya. The violent enclave in the Russian Federation is the ancestral home of the Boston bombing suspects.
The International Broadcasting Bureau — the executive arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors — actually wanted to end Radio Liberty broadcasts in Chechen, Circassian and Avar, three local languages of the violent North Caucasus region, and to lay off a number of experienced journalists. Officials did not succeed in making these cuts owing to strong opposition in Congress. However, the former management of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty did fire dozens of journalists who reported on and analyzed lawlessness and anti-Americanism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
These incomprehensible moves weakened U.S. support for media freedom and undermined national security. Anti-Americanism is the ideology of the Kremlin and is pushed by the state media in the regions of the Russian Federation where jihadists operate. Pro-democracy Russian political leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev and human rights leaders expressed their amazement and displeasure with the firings and cuts at Radio Liberty. They called it America’s gift to Mr. Putin. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the bureaucracy in charge of U.S. international broadcasting as “defunct.”
Fortunately, some of the presidentially appointed members of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors who had supported these program-cutting decisions have since resigned. Meanwhile, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, Victor Ashe, a Republican member and a strong critic of former Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty executives, was joined by two Democratic members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, in demanding immediate changes in how U.S. broadcasts abroad are managed. They appointed Kevin Klose, a distinguished former foreign correspondent and Russia expert, to be in charge of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty for one year.
Some of the failed Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty managers have already departed. Governing board members are still facing stiff resistance to their reforms from the entrenched bureaucracy in Washington. Rather than the political governing board itself, these career bureaucrats have been largely responsible for proposing programming cuts to countries such as China Tibet, Russia and Chechnya while trying to expand their control over budgets and jobs.
Not that some former Broadcasting Board of Governors members and at least one still serving are without any blame. Presidents have a habit of nominating to the board rich political contributors from the media industry. Some of them pursue private business deals in Russia or China and should never have sat on the media-freedom board. Others simply failed to show up for board meetings. The interim presiding governor, Michael Lynton, has missed board meetings since January 2013.
The number of board members is now down to five, which makes it difficult to keep an eye on the bureaucrats. Even President Obama recognized the problem by proposing a permanent CEO, who would report directly to the board.
Some senior staffers of the International Broadcasting Bureau are now in open defiance against the remaining reformist governors, who are looking for a temporary solution until a CEO position is established through legislative process. International Broadcasting Bureau officials are trying to prevent governors from hiring an interim chief of staff to deal with the bureaucracy, which has been rated in Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee surveys as having the worst managers and the lowest employee morale in the federal government.
Broadcasting to areas, such as Chechnya, where jihadists find their recruits is a serious U.S. national security issue. Fired Radio Liberty journalists in Russia should be immediately returned to their former jobs and their programs restored. Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty programs to other largely Muslim areas, such as Kazakhstan, Tatarstan and Turkmenistan have also been rendered largely ineffective by the former management and require immediate attention. Voice of America programs to Iran are also in trouble.
Immediate remedial actions and more funding are needed to fix this national security problem. Bureaucrats who have been there for years weakened the pro-freedom message, but failed in their attempts to expand the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ global audience, which has been stagnant since at least 2008. They are not only resisting reforms, they are openly defiant. They tried to end programs to some of the most strategically important countries and to replace serious political reporting with fluff journalism. Their implementation of the board’s strategic plan resulted in firings of skilled media professionals and producing sexually suggestive videos for audiences in conservative Muslim nations such as Kazakhstan. Their decision-making authority must be taken away, and new managers must be found.
This critical national security operation needs both more scrutiny and more resources to counter anti-American and jihadist propaganda. U.S. international broadcasting is too important to be ignored by the administration and Congress as enemies of the United States increase their penetration of global media. Freedom’s voices need strengthening in the most dangerous areas of the world, including Chechnya, the ancestral home of the Boston bombing suspects. Reformist members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors deserve America’s support in their efforts to confront a bureaucracy that stifles U.S. international broadcasts.
Ted Lipien is a director at the independent and nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (Cusib.org) and former Voice of America acting associate director.