By BosNewsLife News Service
BUDAPEST/MOSCOW (BosNewsLife)– The BBC World Service, part of Britain’s state-backed broadcaster, said Thursday, January 27, that it would cease all radio programming in Russian, four years after BosNewsLife revealed that at least one senior editor had ties with Russia’s Soviet-era secret service. Former and current dissidents also complained about the network’s “pro-Kremlin” tone.
BBC officials say the closure of the Russian service is part of a response to a 16 percent reduction in World Service funding from the Foreign Ministry. In 2014, the World Service will switch to funding from the license fee paid by viewers. Besides Russian, Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian, Portuguese for Africa and the English for the Caribbean services will end along with Mandarin and Spanish for Cuba.
But comments posted Thursday, January 28, suggested that poor ratings following more pro-Kremlin reporting played a role as well in the decision to seize broadcasting of one of the BBC’s strategic services. One of the commentators, Andrej, wrote that the Russian service chief Sarah Gibson, “killed” the service. “Under your leadership the Russian service became a repetition of Radio Russia. You removed the best correspondents from [for instance ]the United States, Germany, Switzerland, and Hungary, by sending untalented correspondents to the United States, spending a lot of money. They created uninteresting programs without ranking like ‘The 5th Floor’.”
Gibson disagreed saying that she and her team worked hard. She said that due to the cuts, they would not be able to have so many programs and that short wave services and medium wave services would seize. The Russian service would only continue via the Internet,
most likely as early as March 1, she said. Andrej said that the Russian Internet edition would have no future.
However already in 2007, shortly after Gibson became chief, former and current dissidents complained about the allegedly pro-Kremlin
tone of the BBC programs and bias towards Russian President, and now Prime Minister, 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, 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 already decreased by up to 30 percent, from the original $130 to about $90 in 2007. For often struggling journalists, that amount was, and is, barely enough to work on the required radio rich packages of four minutes or longer 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.” That debate will now continue via other broadcasters including France’s Radio France International (RFI) and U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who have not halted their Russian services via short wave and the Internet. (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).