BY DR. ELEZ BIBERAJ/
Director Eurasia Division, Voice of America/
Dielli is thankful to Dr. Biberaj for providing the presentation to its readers.Dr. Elez Biberaj, Director of Voice of America’s Eurasia Division, was the guest speaker at the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting in West Chester Township.
His talk centered on the VOA’s global impact during the Cold War between 1947 to 1991; events leading up to the fall of the wall in 1991; and some of the current issues regarding propaganda and disinformation programs from Russia. One point focuses on whether we are experiencing a ‘Second Cold War’ due to reports of Russian disinformation efforts during the US 2016 presidential election and in our electoral system. The media release for his talk said “No one knows the Cold War like VOA career-employee Elez Biberaj. The Museum Executive Director Jack Dominic said that Elez was on the front lines of the Cold War as both a political analyst and a VOA journalist. “We’re eager to hear his insights on the role VOA played in inspiring East Europeans to work for democracy in their own countries, as well as his take on the state of democracy in Europe today.” After World War II ended in 1945, the Soviet Union controlled the eastern part of Germany, while the western part went to the United States, Great Britain and France. In 1961, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic started building a wall in Berlin to separate east and western areas. It became the symbol of the Soviet Union’s “Iron Curtain” separating nations during the Cold War. Demolition of the wall began Nov. 9, 1989, after the Eastern German Communist Party announced that citizens could cross the border without fear or retaliation.
Elez Biberaj, has earned a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University, and has been Director of VOA’s Eurasia Division since 2006. He oversees the VOA’s Russian, Ukrainian, Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Georgian, Macedonian, and Serbian language services. He has traveled extensively throughout Eurasia and has spoken on Eurasian, Balkan and Russian affairs to government, NGOs and media organizations because of his expertise in Eurasian affairs, according to the VOA in Washington DC. He is the author of four books and numerous scholarly articles.
As we mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is a good time to reflect on the role that the Voice of America (VOA) played during the Cold War and examine the critical role it plays today in supporting and promoting freedom of information, democracy, and media literacy worldwide.
VOA is the largest and most important entity of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, an independent federal agency that oversees all American international broadcasting. It is a global, fully multi-media organization – providing content on TV, radio, and digital platforms in 47 languages. On a weekly basis, VOA now reaches 275 million people – an increase of 50% over the past five years. VOA’s TV programs, video streams and multimedia content meet audiences on platforms of their choosing and are shared daily with millions of connected mobile and social media users on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and VOA-operated websites and apps.
VOA is funded by the U.S. Congress, and has about 1,000 employees with correspondents and stringers around the world, and more than 2500 affiliates worldwide. Its editorial independence is guaranteed by law. VOA is mandated by its Charter – signed into law in 1976 – to practice responsible journalism and to provide accurate, balanced and comprehensive news and information of the highest journalistic standards to an international audience. The Charter defines VOA’s mission very clearly: to serve as a trusted source of reliable news and information; present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions and present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.
While many things have changed since the end of the Cold War and VOA has undergone significant transformations, one thing that has not changed is our mission: to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.
Compared to a few years ago, the world today is less democratic and the media less free and independent. We are witnessing a widespread assault on the truth and attempts to manipulate public opinion and disseminate blatantly false news and information. Social media are becoming political battlefields, manipulating the truth and spreading disinformation.
VOA is the leading international broadcaster and one of the most recognized international news brands in the world. It is in a unique position to tell America’s compelling story and advance U.S. foreign policy objectives by placing special reporting emphasis on issues important to the United States. VOA has expanded its programming across platforms. The Eurasia Division’s eight services, targeting Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and the Balkans, are focusing their programing on responding to Russian disinformation and malign behavior, countering radicalization and violent extremism, reporting on poor governance, pervasive corruption, lack of rule of law and other issues that hinder the region’s consolidation of democracy and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. VOA has become a permanent feature of the media scene in many countries, often driving the news cycle and generating conversations and debates on major issues.
VOA During the Cold War Era
The Voice of America was established in response to the need of people in war-torn and repressed countries to have access to accurate, honest, and reliable news and information. The Eurasia region – the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – were at the center of the Cold War, and throughout that long, dark period, VOA served as a source of trustworthy information, broadcasting in more than 30 languages spoken in the region. VOA provided comprehensive coverage of key political events that shaped the lives of people in the communist world: the Sovietization of Eastern Europe, the Stalin-Tito break, de-Stalinization, the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the invasion of Czechoslovakia; the rise of the Polish labor movement Solidarity, the emergence of dissident movements, the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the introduction of glasnost and perestroika, and, finally, the momentous events that led to the demise of communism throughout Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Through its comprehensive reporting, VOA served as a beacon of hope, helping people under communist rule keep their hopes alive, preserve their independent spirit, and achieve their democratic aspirations. More specifically, VOA broadcasts provided accurate and balanced news and information; exposed the systematic repression of human and national rights in the communist world; highlighted American and Western support for the democratic aspirations of the peoples of communist countries; promoted the ideals of a free, pluralistic and democratic society; served as a significant agent of change by successfully challenging communist regimes’ monopoly on news and information, and provided an outlet for dissent and served as an alternative source for the flow of information and ideas, thus discrediting the official communist propaganda and encouraging democratic elements. VOA conducted impactful interviews with the region’s most important dissidents – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and others.
After 1989-91, many dignitaries such as Walesa, Havel, post-communist leaders of Baltic and East European countries, former diplomats, experts, journalists and people from all walks of life acknowledged that VOA had played a key role in the fall of communism and the development of democracy in the region.
Former Secretary of State James Baker, in an interview with the Voice of America on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, acknowledged the important role VOA played in galvanizing public support for democracy: “The fall of the [Berlin] Wall really was not predicted to happen when it did. We knew there were demonstrations for freedom occurring all across the Warsaw Pact countries and in large part, I might add, because of the actions and efforts of the Voice of America and the fact that we were getting our message across and into those countries. There is a strong yearning for freedom on the part of peoples everywhere in the world. And when authoritarians come to power and try and shut off that freedom or eliminate that freedom, there’s going to be resistance. That’s why we won the Cold War. That’s why our paradigm of democracy and free markets is the most successful one.”
VOA’s reputation as an independent, trusted and credible media outlet is what attracted its audiences during the Cold War – and still inspires audiences today.
VOA in the Post-Cold War Era
In the wake of the end of the Cold War, there were high hopes that Russia and other former communist countries would rapidly embrace democracy and the market economy. The U.S. made a huge investment, launching a set of assistance programs, which focused on sustained democratization and economic stabilization.
In the first two decades after the Cold War, Russia and the other former communist countries indeed made significant progress in reshaping their political and institutional landscape, establishing a new constitutional order, and developing an independent media. The Baltic States, the Central and East European countries, plus Slovenia and Croatia joined both NATO and the European Union.
In the early 1990s, some expected to see a peace dividend and argued that VOA had completed its mission and as result there was no longer a need for VOA and its sister broadcasting entities. Unfortunately, that could not be farther from the truth.
VOA broadcasts today are as critical, if not more critical, than during the Cold War. The transition from communism to democracy has not been as smooth and rapid as many had hoped. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the situations in Eurasia remains fragile and few former communist countries have fully consolidated their democratic order. Freedom House classifies Eurasia as one of the most repressive areas in the world. Russia is rated as “not free,” and the other countries as “partly free.” The media in Eurasia are highly politicized and subject to the control and influence of government, political parties, and powerful oligarchs.
Leading media monitoring organizations – Freedom House, IREX, and Reporters Without Borders – consistently rank the Eurasia region’s media environments as not yet free. In recent years, the space for independent media has severely been curtailed. The few truly independent media outlets and journalists are often targeted by their governments and local business people who want to suppress critical reporting.
Countering Russian disinformation
Repressive and authoritarian regimes are waging global disinformation campaigns, aimed at sowing chaos, undermining democratic processes, and creating doubt about the truth.
Russian disinformation presents a growing challenge.
Russia has emerged as a fully, consolidated authoritarian state, with power concentrated in the hands of President Vladimir Putin, the opposition marginalized, legislative and judicial branches obedient to the executive branch, and the media under tight government control. Putin has pursued an increasingly aggressive and revisionist policy aimed at reasserting Russia’s control over its neighbors, blocking their integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions, and aggressively challenging U.S. policy around the globe. The Russian government has relied heavily on the intensive use of weaponized information to fan anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiments both in Russia and globally.
The government-controlled media often publish false and misleading information aimed at undermining democratic values and institutions, tarnishing the appeal of Western-style democracies, and building sympathy for Putin’s authoritarian model of government. They focus on domestically divisive topics, support extremist, and fringe forces and then amplify their messages and positions.
Russia is using a broad range of tools and tactics to target specific communities, countries, and environments. RT (former Russia Today) and Sputnik, which now operate in more than 100 countries, flood the markets with false or misleading information. They make heavy use of social media bots and fake accounts to influence elections in other countries and promote Moscow’s narratives.
The region that VOA’s Eurasia Division covers is one of the prime targets of Russia’s disinformation. And in our programming, we devote considerable attention to this issue.
VOA plays a critical role in countering Russian disinformation and discrediting Moscow’s sophisticated narratives aimed at undermining democratic processes in other countries and instigating resentment toward the United States. Our Services have extraordinary reach and impact. This is reflected in their weekly audience size and quantitative, qualitative and anecdotal data on program quality of trustworthiness, engagement, and audience understanding of current events. VOA’s weekly reach ranges from 3.1% in Russia, 10% in Ukraine, 26% in Serbia, 38% in Armenia, to 60.5% in Albania.
We counter Russian disinformation as journalists – through truthful, fact-based news and information. Our reporters engage in painstaking research, identifying false and misleading statements and information by officials and government-controlled media and setting the record straight.
The United States and Russia hold fundamentally different and clashing world views. It is therefore imperative that VOA provide its Russian audiences with timely news, analysis and insights into U.S. policies and American life that is not available in the Russian media.
VOA’s Experience in Russia
VOA remains a well-known and powerful brand name in Russia, having provided Russian-language programming to audiences in Russia and other former Soviet republics continuously since February 1947. After the Cold War ended, VOA developed a network of radio and television affiliate partners in Russia. But in the last decade, with Russia’s democratic backsliding, the Kremlin’s tight grip on major broadcast outlets, and mounting encroachments on key spheres of online activity, VOA has been forced to work in a highly constricted public space in Russia. In 2008, our Russian Service lost access to radio and television affiliates when President Putin’s government pressured local stations to stop rebroadcasting VOA programs. In 2014, Russia barred VOA from local broadcasting. Then in November 2017, the Russian government declared VOA and RFE/RL as foreign agents, a move aimed at reducing access to U.S. international media outlets and intimidating VOA’s audience. A new and controversial law went into effect on November 1, 2019, aimed ultimately at creating an independent internet for Russia. The “sovereign internet” law allows Russia’s telecom company, Roskomnadzor, to sensor or block content it may consider as too sensitive or critical of the Kremlin. It remains to be seen how and to what extent the law will be implemented, but now the authorities can disconnect users from the global internet.
Denied direct distribution and program placement on Russia’s media outlets, VOA’s Russian Service has employed a digital-first strategy. The Service provides in-depth coverage of regional and world developments, U.S.-Russia relations, Russian diaspora, and events in the United States. The Service also regularly provides simultaneously translated live streams of major U.S. events, including presidential speeches, major press conferences, and hearings in the U.S. Congress. In 2017, VOA partnered with RFE/RL to launch Current Time, a 24/7 Russian-language television digital network, targeting Russian-speakers in and around Russia. The network is attracting a younger and more social media savvy audience. Current Time is available to viewers on a variety of television, digital, social and mobile platforms.
In addition to Russia, there are significant challenge to press freedom in other former communist countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Many media outlets are controlled by big business and they cannot cover certain stories or risk losing revenue. The result is a widespread lack of trust in the media and lack of government and business accountability.
Given these troubling trends, VOA has put added emphasis on the importance of press freedom – even added the tagline to our logo “A Free Press Matters.” VOA supports and works with investigative journalists in the region – covering stories that local media cannot, such as high-level corruption. VOA has also added an English web page devoted to examining challenges to free press globally and explaining why a free press is important to democracies, launched a media literacy project in Learning English, and is conducting extensive training of journalists in the field to expand “good” media space and increase media literacy.
In addition to being a beacon for press freedom, and to telling America’s story, VOA is adding new programming for refugees, raising the profile of women on the air and as experts in coverage, and is doing more investigative reporting. And – pursuing a strategy of not just targeting countries, but in this digital age, targeting language speakers – VOA is providing 24/7 streams. In addition to Current Time, a television and digital stream for Russian speakers around the world developed by VOA and RFE/RL, VOA has launched a stream for Persian speakers and is developing a similar project for Mandarin. These 24/7 streams enable VOA to provide, in real time, important U.S. speeches and events, with simultaneous translation – thus giving audiences unfiltered access to American newsmakers and policymakers.
In this age of widespread disinformation, propaganda campaigns and falsified news, VOA is committed to serve its audiences by practicing responsible journalism and upholding the highest journalistic standards. As William Harlan Hale said in VOA’s first broadcast, on February 1, 1942, “The news may be good. The news may be bad for us. We shall tell you the truth.”
Just as during the long, dark period of communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, VOA remains a potent force in sharing the values of democracy, good governance, and a free press.
In February 2020, VOA will mark its 78th anniversary. The staying power of VOA is a testament to the vital role it continues to play in exporting the First Amendment to audiences worldwide.