(As the world watches the unfolding crisis in Georgia, BosNewsLife re-publishes following story which received many hits and international attention. This article was first published January 4, 2007). In an open letter published this week in British media, dissidents complained about the allegedly pro-Kremlin tone of the BBC programs and bias towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former agent of the feared Soviet-era secret service, the KGB.
The activists, led by Oleg Gordievsky, a former KGB spy turned British MI6 agent, and Vladimir Bukovsky, an author who spent 12 years in Soviet prison camps, are particularly angered by the unexpected axing of a program presented by Seva Novgorodsev that had run for 19 years.
His program regularly featured guests who were enemies of the Moscow government, such as Litvinenko and the journalist Anna Politkovskaya whose murder he was investigating. The BBC reportedly received a protest letter signed by 1,000 listeners around the world.
“At a time when Britain needs a strong voice in Russia more than at any point over the past decade, the taxpayer-funded BBC Russian Service radio seems to have considerably mellowed in its tone towards the Russian government,” The Daily Telegraph newspaper quoted the letter as saying. “By design or by neglect, it has become more accommodating of Russian government views, dispensing with difficult questions and denying a platform to some critics.”
In addition, the BBC Russian service went off air in Moscow and St Petersburg, two major radio markets, in December around the time of the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in the KGB. “Unexplained technical difficulties” with the BBC’s local partners were reportedly blamed.
A BosNewsLife investigation meanwhile revealed that at least one senior Russian editor had links with the former Soviet Union regime and the KGB.
Andrei Ostalski, the editor-in-chief of the BBC Russian Service in London, admitted in an article on the network’s Russian website that he had worked for a decade for the Soviet-era news agency TASS, seen as a mouthpiece of the Kremlin and the Communist Party, during the height of the Cold War.
On the eve of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, an event he called “the entry of Soviet forces,” Ostalski said he was asked, and agreed, to closely cooperate with the chief of the analytical department of the KGB, a man identified as Nikolai Leonov.
He said that “on Christmas night” of December 24, 1979, they were asked to “attentively monitor the international reactions to the entry of Soviet forces in Afghanistan.” Ostalski, moved to the United Kingdom soon after the break up of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s.
BosNewsLife also established that several other editors and producers received prestigious Communist-era education in Moscow, which was closed for dissidents, their children, or those who were not loyal to the regime.
While the BBC leadership has apparently tried to supervise the Russian staff, there have been serious problems with the implementation of that policy. “Our chief of the Russian service, Sarah Gibson, has a limited knowledge of the Russian language. She doesn’t even speak good Russian,” a source told BosNewsLife on condition of anonymity.
Gibson made clear however that she is competent to do her job and that she tries to ensure a more balanced and professional Russian service, BosNewsLife learned. “Yet we lost the best journalists, we are missing their independent and critical reporting,” the source said. “Most items are now produced from the studio or with the current Russian staff.”
Under Gibson, tariffs for radio reports produced by often critical, independent, freelance correspondents and stringers decreased recently by up to 30 percent, from the original $130 to about $90. For often struggling journalists, that amount is barely enough to work on the required radio packages of up to four minutes in expensive capitals such as Moscow, where they have to cover their own travel and equipment expenses, correspondents said.
The BBC has strongly denied it is silencing critical voices. “The service remains an important and strong source of impartial and independent news and current affairs renowned for asking difficult questions on behalf of its listeners. We reject any suggestion that we have made compromises in our questioning of any point of view in any debate.” (The article is part of a BosNewsLife initiative covering freedom of expression issues in and related to former and current Communist nations as well as other countries under autocratic rule).