Depending on Russian government-funded media to broadcast news from Voice of America (VOA) is about as brain-dead as depending on Russian spaceships to send American astronauts into space or depending on Russian fuel supply for the U.S. ground and air forces in Afghanistan. The outcome will surely not be in America’s interest.

And yet, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has contracted with Voice of Russia for rebroadcasting VOA programs in English. The BBG has closed down most of its own radio transmitters around the world and even closed down VOA’s Russian-language broadcasting in 2008. The board’s reasons are, firstly, to cut costs and, secondly, to move away from radio toward other more glamorous media, like satellite television and the Internet. The fact remains, however, that most of the BBG’s global audience are still radio listeners, and the way U.S. radio programming now gets on the air is through contracts with local broadcasters. Unfortunately, relying on others for rebroadcasting U.S. programs gives them de facto control of programming content and leads to self-censorship.

A particularly shocking example of self-censorship as a consequence of foreign pressure was provided by the run-up to the Russian election. According to employees of Voice of America, VOA managers told them to cancel plans for coverage of the Russian presidential election on March 3 and 4, the day prior to and the day of the Russian vote. The reason? Voice of Russia was threatening to tear up its rebroadcasting agreement with the BBG unless the U.S. government’s broadcasters complied with limitations on election coverage imposed by Russian legislation.

In a letter (a copy of which was obtained by The Heritage Foundation) directed to Cherelynn Peters, contracting officer for the BBG, Anton Balashov, head of Voice of Russia’s distribution department, issued a warning:

Hereby we notify you about strict necessity to comply with the requirements of Russian legislation during rebroadcasting of your programs on the territory of the Russian Federation in accordance with contract concluded between our companies.

The restrictions were as follows:

  • No broadcasting related to the election on March 3 and 4, declared by legislation to be “silence days.”
  • No publication of election-related opinion polls five days prior to and including the day of the election, starting February 28.
  • No publication of voting results the day of the election until 21.00 (9 p.m.) Moscow time.

The letter concluded with the following threat:

We would like to point out that if you breach the above regulations, the Voice of Russia may be subject to penalties up to license cancellation and ban on broadcasting, which will prevent any performance of the contract between us. In order to avoid any conflicts or claims, we kindly ask you to strictly comply with the regulations and limitations under Russian legislation.

And Voice of America did just that.

Now, it is one thing for the Russian Duma to pass laws regulating Russian election coverage. But it is surely quite another for U.S. government-funded media to silence itself for fear of causing offense. After all, VOA English broadcasts go out all over the world, not just to Russia.

How many other examples of self-censorship are there? The State Department’s inspector general needs to investigate.