Editorial: Don’t silence Voice of America

Ten days before Russian tanks and infantry invaded the democratic and pro-Western Republic of Georgia, the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors terminated all Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia, The Washington Examiner has learned. This means that throughout the still-unfolding international crisis, a key communications tool that helped win the Cold War for the United States has been mute.

VoA’s strategic importance cannot be overstated. The Heritage Foundation’s Lee Edwards, who spearheaded the drive to erect a monument to victims of communism on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., recalls that Polish Solidarity Movement leader Lech Walesa was asked at a conference in Washington about the impact VoA had on Soviet dissidents. “Would there be the Earth without the sun?” Walesa replied.

Two years ago, the BBG decided to eclipse that sun by terminating Russian broadcasts and shifting resources to the Internet. On the surface, there is logic behind such a move, but the reality is that few people living outside Russia’s big cities have online access.

Worse, it’s much easier for Russian censors to shut down Web sites, which they have reportedly already done in Georgia, than to silence VoA broadcasts. The BBG decided to eliminate harder-to-block shortwave radio transmissions, cutting off millions of Russians and Georgians from official U.S. news and analysis.

Tim Shambles, president of the union that represents VoA employees, confirmed that BBG announced termination of the broadcasts in early in July and calls the Kremlin’s decision to invade Georgia less than two weeks after the airwaves went dead “a strange coincidence.”

Even after the invasion, pleas to the BBG by VoA’s Russian experts to go back on the air fell on deaf ears. Two remaining surrogate services that employ foreign journalists sound like the “Kremlin’s mouthpiece,” according to an e-mail from a Russian listener.
VoA employees are still working overtime to broadcast to Georgia, but they have also been informed that their mics will go dead Sept. 30.

Dismantling such a proven means of communication with people trapped inside hostile regimes is so astonishingly stupid, it makes one wonder what planet members of the BBG have been living on. And it’s not for want of funds, since Congress reversed the board’s proposed cuts in its markup of the agency’s 2009 appropriations bill just last month.

Two years ago, when the cuts were first announced, a Russian TV camera crew showed up at VoA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters with a sign in Russian that read: “America without a voice.”

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