MOSCOW – In an unusually sharp and public rebuke, the U.S. Embassy criticized Russia Thursday for cutting off Voice of America radio transmissions in Moscow, which it described as part of an effort to limit independent media here.
The refusal to renew an AM broadcasting license for VOA comes as Russia has been assailed by officials in neighboring Ukraine for using state-controlled media to present what they say is inflammatory and distorted coverage of the new government there.
Voice of America, financed by the U.S. Congress and overseen by an agency called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, was forced off the air at the end of March after Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) Information Agency, wrote a terse refusal to a request for a license renewal saying, “We are not going to cooperate.”
Kiselyov also has a Sunday evening television show recapping the week’s news that has presented Ukraine as overrun by Fascists bent on the destruction of Russian speakers in the eastern part of the country, where small but well-organized groups of pro-Russian protesters have taken over government buildings in three cities this week. He also has described Russia as the only country capable of reducing the United States to “radioactive ash.”
In March he was put on a sanctions list, barring him from travel in European Union countries, because of what the EU called his role in “the government propaganda supporting the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine."
VOA had been broadcasting news in Russian and English lessons on 810 AM in Moscow. It plans to continue operating digitally and by satellite. In 2012, the other U.S.-financed station, Radio Liberty, lost its AM license. It also broadcasts by satellite and on the Internet now.
“In the last year, the Russian Government has passed laws imposing unprecedented censorship and restrictions on media and online publications,” the U.S. Embassy statement said, adding that the Kremlin had turned "the respected news wire service Ria Novosti into a propaganda service."
Jeff Shell, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, pointed out that Russia Today, a Russian government-financed television station under Kiselyov’s agency, broadcasts without restriction in the United States.
“We’re asking for an even playing field,” he said.
In recent days, Russian media has offered sympathetic reporting on the occupation of eastern Ukrainian government buildings by pro-Russians. When the Kiev government gave protesters 48 hours to leave the buildings, Russia’s Channel one television news reported it as: “In 48 hours, Kiev will order to shoot.”
Numerous clips of distraught protesters were shown. “We are Ukrainians speaking Russian and they want to kill us!” one protester told the Wednesday news program.
“They are lying. These are all lies,” an elderly woman said about the government in Kiev. “They are bandits and criminals, a junta at power!” Another protester cried, “They just want other people think that we are bloodthirsty.”
A dispatch from Kharkiv showed a tearful woman railing against the government. “Why are they doing it? Why — they were bombing in Kiev and now our children are their enemies.”
Both Channel One and Rossiya 1 television reported that U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry had denied reports that Greystone, a private U.S. security firm, was operating in Ukraine – a denial that Russian officials accepted. Still, Rossiya 1 reported Donetsk residents had found proof of Greystone’s presence, as had people in Kharkiv.
Rossiya 1 also said the Kiev government had not been investigating reports about snipers because they were occupied trying to find “a way to avoid paying for Russian gas."
Regarding VOA, a member of a Kremlin advisory group blamed the U.S. government for loss of the radio license.
“Russian officials were not proactive in this situation,” said Igor Borisov, a member of the Human Rights Council. “In this information war, which hasn't been unleashed by Russia, it's Moscow that's been behaving in a gentlemanly way, and all its actions have been in tune with modern forms of behavior in such situations."