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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Changes in Ukraine and the Voice of America

David ENSOR: “It is very important to reach Russian audience just to tell the Ukrainian point of view”
18 June, 2014 - 17:45

I started to learn English by listening to the program Special English, which was broadcasted on the short waves of the radio station Voice of America. Recently I was fortunate to interview the Director of the Voice of America, David Ensor, who told me that this program is still broadcasted. My conversation with the head of state radio company, which is broadcasted in 43 languages, and which is available for its audience – nearly 141 million people weekly – on radio, television, mobile connection, and Internet, took place in Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

It is interesting that Mr. Ensor is a journalist with a many-year experience and a long record of service. From 1975 to 1980 he worked as a reporter of the National Public Radio, covering such topics as the White House, foreign policy, and defense questions. From 1980 toll 1998 he was a TV correspondent for the ABC News and from 1998 till 2006 – a national security correspondent for the CNN. Over this period the journalist highlighted such important stories as the martial law and return of Lech Walesa and Solidarity to Warsaw; terrorism in the Near East and Pope Joan Paul II’s travels from Rome; collapse of the Soviet Union, end of communism, two attempts of coup d’etat and First Chechen War – from Moscow. He reported on armed conflicts in Bosnia, Salvador, and Afghanistan, moved from Dzhelalabad to Kabul on a Soviet tank, when Russians started to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. Taking into account this huge experience on highlighting the events in hot sports, our conversation started with the topic of challenges faced now by journalists and reporters, in particular, when they report on the events in Ukraine, which has fallen victim to the “hybrid” war led by Russia.


“Journalists have an enormous responsibility to be a witness. I’d like to say – many have said it before – that journalism is the first draft of history. That’s what you write in your newspaper. Later historians go back, read the newspaper, and revise. So, our role as journalists is to be eyewitnesses. We need to be as objective, accurate, balanced, and comprehensive as we can. And those are, by the way, the words from the Voice of America Charter that US Congress passed in 1976, under which we try to work. These are good words for any journalist to follow.

“But that said I do not think journalists are necessarily just neutral either. You know, I have worked for CNN for nine years after working for eighteen years for ABC News, and five years for the National Public Radio, and one of my colleagues, Christiane Amanpour, was very outspoken and not at all neutral on the subject of Bosnia. And she was saying to the President of the United States and others in powerful places: ‘Are you going to stand by and watch this and do nothing? How much longer? How many people will have to die before you do something?’ And it was not neutral.

“But there is a time and place for journalists to speak out against injustice, or against killing, or against wrongdoing. That is a part of our role as well as trying to be balanced and objective and giving everyone’s point of view.”


Do you see any difference between reporting then and now, especially taking into consideration the way Russian journalists are highlighting the events in Ukraine?

“Well, one of the things that we in the West are now talking about is how to respond to what has been very well financed, very large-scaled, and, frankly speaking, quite effective and well-planned propaganda push by the Kremlin. They are not dumb. Some quite clever approaches have been taken. And it is always easier for a dictatorship to organize around a project quickly.

“And we are talking – the United States, our friends in NATO. Recently I have been to Wroclaw, Poland, talking to Poles, Czechs, and Baltic leaders like President Ilves of Estonia, on how we should respond on the media side to what the Russians are doing. Clearly, we must do some things that we have not done so far. There are going to be some efforts in Russian language that we have not done so far.

“I do not think we need to match the Russians dollar for dollar, or ruble for ruble, because I think our ideas are more appealing than theirs are. And the truth is more powerful than propaganda lying, which can be shown to be lies in many cases. But that said we must be on a plane field. You cannot win if you don’t field a team. So, we need to be talking also with your new government about how to do a better job of reaching more people, especially in the Russian-speaking space with honest, accurate, fact-based journalism. I don’t think we need to have propaganda. I think we need to tell the truth. And the truth is not always good for our side either. But in the end it is stronger than sometimes the propaganda lying.”


How can it be done, considering the fact that Russian authorities have ousted even Radio Liberty from Russian territory?

“What has Putin said about the Crimea? ‘I have the right to intervene on behalf of everyone who speaks Russian. They are my people.’ It’s a lie. It is the same lie that was used by a German leader once in the 1930s and 1940s. It is exact same lie. How do we respond? We need to respond on the same plane field. So, we need to respond with good, fact-based journalism and programming, whether it be television or newspapers, whether it be the Internet, whether it be radio. That speaks to those Russian speakers, whenever they may be, whether it is Riga or Donetsk, or wherever, globally, even London. So, that’s the first thing I think we need to be working on together.

“The second thing you are talking about is the Russian Federation itself. This is harder. Mr. Putin has 80 percent approval ratings now. He is riding high on a plateau of popular good feeling. The citizens of Russian Federation are all very happy to have the Crimea to go on vacation. They are proud and they are nationalistic now. I think that Kremlin’s media have whipped people out a bit of frenzy of nationalism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Westernism, even anti-Ukrainianism. The basic facts are not in a long term on the side of Mr. Putin.

“First of all, he has broken a series of international agreements, treaties, rules, and laws. They have been the foundation of the civilization since 1945 at least, even before that actually. And over time more and more people will understand that cannot be permitted without response. Our broadcast is jammed in the Russian Federation. We lost our airway license in Moscow not long ago. Most of our Voice of America effort towards Russia proper is on the Internet. We have a TV show that people watch on computers. We do a lot of programming through the Internet, through digital space. Their authorities are trying to make things difficult and they are taking steps to make it more difficult, so it is cat and mouse if you will. But I like our chances of reaching a fair number of people in Russia and we are going to play a long game and be patient, but I think we can reach more people and I think over time more Russian citizens will realize that this is a house of cards that is being built.

“But I do not want to pretend that there is some wonderful immediate idea or strategy that is going to get to all the citizens of the Russian Federation, because it’s not true. We do some VOA programming appears on some Russian television stations occasionally, but it is rather limited and it is usually about economic matters or what is going on the stock market. They do not want hard news broadcasting from the Voice of America in Russia right now. The authorities do not. So we have to play a long game ahead of us. But I think reaching Rus-sian speakers in a larger Russian space in what was Central Asia, in Ukraine, in the Baltic countries, and around the world is something we can and must do much more aggressively.”

Talking about Crimea, in your opinion, how can the Voice of America help people in the Crimea see the Ukrainian point of view on the events in Ukraine?

“Our sister network Radio Free Europe has started recently a new Crimean web page in the Tatar language, in Ukrainian, and in Russian, with specific news reported by the streamers, some of whom are a sort of underground if you will, reporting out of the Crimea. So, I think that is an important effort. We are doing some new broadcasting in the Russian language. We are doing this daily, not five times a week, or five-minute newscast, our television newscasts in Russian are prepared by our Ukrainian service in Russian and we are hopeful that that can over time be seen by more and more people, hopefully, including in the Crimea. We will certainly be putting that on the Internet. We are putting it on the Internet. We are looking to get maybe some affiliates in eastern Ukraine and have it on regular television as well. So, we are looking for ways to help.”

Don’t you think that some kind of “Hippocratic oath” should be created for journalists all over the world, and in the case with Russia, every journalist involved in propaganda, rather than in truthful reporting, should be denied the right to travel abroad?

“I do not think whether you can get enough people to police such an agreement. It sounds nice, but I do not know whether the world will ever be able to organize this fashion to able to do that. You know what else? To be honest, I do not wish to deny anybody including a dictator in Moscow the right to say whatever they want. I believe in freedom of speech, total freedom of speech, even for liars, and I think that the truth is more powerful then lies, and if you have total freedom of speech, that’s what emerges. So, you know, the first amendment of the US Constitution is amendment which guaranties freedom of speech. Without freedom of speech you cannot have a democratic society, it is the first building block. You need other things, too. You need a system of courts that is not corrupt. You need many things, but first you have to have really good freedom of speech. It is not total. We have a famous court case, where it was decided by our Supreme Court that it was not legal to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, when there was no fire. There is no freedom to do that. There have to be some civilized limits on what you can say and where you can say that. But it has to be pretty close to total freedom, particularly in terms of political solutions.”


Please, tell us about the purpose of your visit to Ukraine.

“The last time I was in Kyiv was in 1993. Anyway, it was just the time of the end of the Soviet Union and the end of communism, a very different Kyiv. I am very proud to see what is happening in Kyiv today, and I am here in part to say that the Voice of America wants to be part of the change in Ukraine. We want to help Ukrainians to build strong, prosperous, and secure democracy, and we know it is not going to be easy. There would be more setbacks, more challenges, and we want to stand with you in that effort, and we want to help your media to be successful and play the role they need to play. And there is so much work for you all to do. I was talking with one of your parliamentarians over lunch about the issue of corruption and the issue of courts and judges, because it is so essential to have a system of justice that people have at least some confidence in. So, you need to be writing about that and exposing the problems. You really have a big set of tasks. We are an international broadcasting and journalistic organization, we cannot be on frontlines with you, but we can be supportive of it, sort of look at it from Washington and from outside and try to be helpful and thoughtful about what issues you are to face. Certainly, we are trying to cover US-Ukrainian relations in-depth and let people in Ukraine know really what is going on in the United States and how it could affect that relationship and Ukraine.”

What do you think about the idea to create in Ukraine a sort of English-language service, like CNN or BBC, for international audience?

“I think it’s a good idea to think about. That is very competitive space in English. A lot of people, Al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, you name it, they all are competing for that slice of the same pie. RT, CCTV, PressTV of Iran, etc. I am not opposed to the idea. I tell you what though, I’d like to talk to the Ukrainian officials about how to reach more people in the Russian language space with honest news.

“I was talking with one of your parliamentarians, as I said, over lunch. He was saying that he was upset, because he sees slick, articulate, pro-Russian spokesmen on the air in English on different channels, speaking from London, Brussels, Paris, and he said we need to do something like that and you need to do something like that. You need to identify articulate, strong English-speakers, who can speak from the Ukrainian point of view, and who can go to the BBC studio in London whenever they are asked. That’s a very important project for you. That’s a lot cheaper than setting whole separate television network with all infrastructure. Before you start on big project, certainly do the smaller project. It’s very important.

“Besides, it is very important for you reach Russian audience just to tell the Ukrainian point of view. Ukraine seems to me to be a country made up of people from different ethnic origins, and it needs to be rather in American way, rather inclusive. It needs to welcome people, whether they be of Georgian origin or Russian origin. They do not have to be of Ukrainian origin to be Ukrainian. And as long as you have that vision of citizenship, you can build very attractive model. So, that’s one of the projects for your new government.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day