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Editorial Independence Critical for U.S. International Broadcasting
Friday, September 18, 2020

By Jordan Warlick, Policy Advisor

Access to accurate, unbiased information is imperative for a functioning democracy. Citizens need access to credible news in order to make informed decisions about the future of their nation. According to the most recent U.S. National Security Strategy, “an informed and engaged citizenry is the fundamental requirement for a free and resilient nation. For generations, [U.S.] society has protected free press, free speech, and free thought.”

As part of its commitment to press freedom worldwide, the United States supports the development of local independent media in countries where government-controlled media dominates the information landscape. It also brings independent media to these information-starved spots through specific services—like Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and others—under the aegis of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).

The mission of USAGM, which oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, is vital to the U.S. national interest: “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” USAGM networks reach more than 350 million people across the globe, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news.

Because providing access to credible media is a more effective tool of diplomacy than attempting to push U.S. propaganda overseas, USAGM and the media organizations it oversees are deliberately, legally structured against acting like a propaganda mouthpiece for the U.S. government.  The credibility and reliability of Voice of America and other USAGM networks hinge on a statutory firewall that protects them from political interference and has been in place since President Gerald Ford signed Voice of America’s charter in 1976. More than 40 years of bipartisan support for USAGM has been critical to its success.

In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed the International Broadcasting Act, which established the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)—now USAGM—to oversee Voice of America and  its sister networks. The legislation specifically mandated that broadcasting overseen by the BBG must “be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism.” It also required that the Director of BBG to “respect the professional independence and integrity” of the U.S. international broadcasting services it oversees.

When the BBG became the U.S. Agency for Global Media in 2017, USAGM retained the same statutory commitments to protecting the independence of its networks, including that the Chief Executive Officer of USAGM must “respect the independence and integrity” of the broadcasting services.

Voice of America’s mission today—“producing accurate, balanced and comprehensive reporting, programming, online and social media content for a global audience, particularly to those who are denied access to open and free media”—would not be possible without this political firewall. Like any other privately owned media outlet, these networks must remain free to produce independent reporting, including that which is critical of U.S. government policies.

Unlike many other state-controlled international media outlets, including Russia’s RT and Sputnik or China’s CCTV, USAGM networks have a storied history of bringing credible, reliable news to audiences behind the Iron Curtain, the Great Firewall of China, and beyond. It would be particularly damaging if the United States was perceived to be attempting to tear down the legal firewall protecting Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the other international broadcasters from political interference.

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  • Democracy Deferred

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  • A Deadly Calling

    Over the last year, several journalists investigating public corruption have been murdered for their work in Europe and Eurasia. Two of these victims—Jan Kuciak of Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta—came from states within the European Union. While protests erupted in Slovakia after Kuciak’s murder, ultimately leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister and other senior government officials, Caruana Galizia’s murder did not trigger a similar outcome. Those who hired her murderers continue to enjoy anonymity and impunity. The briefing examined the assassinations of journalists throughout Europe and Eurasia, why they are targeted, and how future murders can be prevented. It also investigated the shrinking space for investigative journalism in Europe and Eurasia, where there is less investment in investigative journalism and fewer outlets for investigations to be published.

  • Ending the War in Ukraine

    The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker explored the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election. During his opening statement, Ambassador Volker noted that the conflict will only be resolved if Russia decides to remove its forces from the territory of Ukraine and to allow a genuine security presence to enter. He highlighted a proposal to institute a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping force that would help fulfill the Minsk Agreements by establishing security, controlling the border, and creating conditions to hold local elections. This peacekeeping force would be funded through voluntary contributions by nations and coordinated by a special representative of the secretary-general. In the Q&A, Ambassador Volker underlined that a U.N. mandate for such a mission would necessarily depend on Russian agreement. He noted that it is possible that after President Putin’s reelection, there may be greater political space for such a decision to take place, particularly as Russia continues to suffer significant economic and human costs from its occupation and will gain little by continuing the conflict. Regarding Crimea, Ambassador Volker noted that, although it is fortuitous there is no active military-style fighting, the centralized Russian rule has created a dire human rights situation on the illegally occupied territory. The Muslim Crimean Tartar population in particular has suffered greatly under Russian rule. As a result, many Crimean Tartars have fled for other parts of the country. He also stated that he has made it clear to his Russian counterparts that the United States does not accept Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. Ambassador Volker highlighted some areas where the OSCE’s role could be enhanced. He said that a U.N. peacekeeping force would support the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in executing its mandate in full. Furthermore, the OSCE could help provide supervision and training to local police forces to fill any potential security vacuum after illegal armed groups are removed. The OSCE could also be instrumental in creating and monitoring local elections.  Ambassador Volker closed the briefing by emphasizing the utility of working toward implementation of the Minsk Agreements rather than seeking to negotiate a new format. Even though the agreement has to date seen little implementation, attempting to create an alternative would just start a new open-ended negotiating process. He reiterated his belief that a U.N. peacekeeping force has the potential to unlock significant progress towards implementation of Minsk. He asserted that the United States would continue to be an active contributor to creating a prosperous and successful democratic Ukraine which could help foster a positive security and political environment in Europe going forward.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEMOCRACY DEFERRED: THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:30 a.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.   The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now Additional panelists may be added. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • Kurt Volker to Discuss War in Ukraine at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ENDING THE WAR IN UKRAINE: KURT VOLKER, U.S. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR UKRAINE NEGOTIATIONS Tuesday, May 8, 2018 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 106 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Russian-manufactured war in Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people, injured at least 25,000, and created a humanitarian crisis endangering millions more. Amid daily ceasefire violations and threats to critical infrastructure, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the cost of the needless, four-year-old conflict. In July 2017, the U.S. Secretary of State appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Volker has since repeatedly met with senior Russian counterparts to explore ways to end the conflict, including the possibility of an international peacekeeping mission. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, Ambassador Volker will explore the way ahead for U.S. and international policy on Ukraine in the wake of President Putin’s re-election.  

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Cardin on Anniversary of Death of Joseph Stone in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On the one-year anniversary of the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) recalled Stone’s tragic death, criticized the pressure put on international monitors, and called for the Russian government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in Stone’s death.  Stone’s life was cruelly cut short when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “Civilian OSCE monitors like Mr. Stone risk their lives to tell the world what is happening, even as they face violent harassment and physical obstruction. Monitors should be able to travel throughout the country without restriction or intimidation, as their mandate requires,” Sen. Wicker said. “Russia’s continued fueling of this war must end. Putin and those he supports should live up to their commitments under the Minsk agreements and get out of Ukraine.” Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Ranking Senate Commissioner, praised the work of the monitors and condemned Russia’s leaders for their role in the conflict. “Joseph Stone gave his life in service to a mission that shines a light on a war that has killed thousands and affected millions more.  Every day, these brave, unarmed monitors report the ground truth from a conflict manufactured by Putin and his cronies to advance his vision of a weak and destabilized Ukraine,” Sen. Cardin stated. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the most serious breaches of OSCE principles since the signing of Helsinki Final Act in 1975. The Russian regime must put an end to the cycle of violence it perpetuates in Ukraine and live up to its OSCE commitments.” The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine.  It currently fields roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The United States supports the SMM by providing more than 60 monitors and other resources to the mission.

  • How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • One Year Later, U.S. Consulate Employee in Turkey Remains Behind Bars

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor One year ago today, Turkish authorities detained Hamza Uluçay, a 36-year veteran Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulate in the southern city of Adana. After decades of service to the United States, he spent the last year behind bars on unsubstantiated terrorism charges.    Authorities initially questioned Uluçay last February about his communications with local Kurdish contacts. Such communication with local contacts, including peaceful Kurdish groups, would have been a routine part of the U.S consulate’s work. Yet within hours of his initial detention, the Turkish press claimed that Uluçay was suspected of inciting public support for the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has been engaged in a more than three-decade armed conflict with the Turkish state. After more than a week in custody, Uluçay was released for lack of sufficient evidence only to be re-detained hours later due to a prosecutor’s objections. This time Uluçay was formally arrested and faced graver charges. He stood accused of “membership in a terrorist organization,” a reference purportedly to the PKK and the Gulen movement, the religious and social movement the Turkish government accuses of orchestrating the failed coup in July 2016. Little is known about the prosecution’s evidence against Uluçay. According to Turkish press, authorities seized 21 U.S. dollar bills from Uluçay’s home. As seen in the case of imprisoned U.S. citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Golge, Turkish prosecutors regularly cite one dollar bills as “evidence” of a defendant’s involvement with the Gulen movement. The government claims that the founder of the movement and alleged coup mastermind, Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, gave blessed dollar bills to his followers, particularly those with serial numbers beginning with “F” for “Fethullah.” Uluçay’s experience is another sobering reminder of the state of the rule of law in Turkey, where a single dollar bill can stand as “evidence” of terrorist activity.  Authorities also seized on Uluçay’s possession of books about Kurdish politics and terrorism: typical possessions for a political specialist whose job is to help American diplomats understand conditions in southeast Turkey. U.S. embassies and consulates around the world hire local staff like Uluçay to facilitate engagement with local contacts and to advise on political and cultural dynamics in the host country.  Since U.S. diplomats rotate among overseas posts every few years, locally employed staff (or LES, as they are known) often serve as important focal points of continuity and institutional memory in the work of a diplomatic mission. In Uluçay’s case, he offered successive rotations of American diplomats in Adana decades’ worth of established relationships and experience working with local groups and individuals.   As LES directly support U.S. diplomatic representation in a country, it is rare for host nation authorities to openly interfere with their work, least of all in countries with friendly relations with the United States. For this reason—and in the absence of credible evidence to support the serious allegations against him—the detention of Uluçay last February represented a significant diplomatic incident.  The affront was compounded seven months later when Turkish authorities detained another longtime Turkish employee of a U.S. consulate, this time in Istanbul. Metin Topuz was taken into custody on September 25 and shortly thereafter charged with “membership in a terrorist organization,” “gathering state secrets for espionage,” and “attempting to overthrow [the Government, Turkish National Assembly, and the Constitutional Order].”  Topuz had spent more than 20 years working for the U.S. consulate where he helped officers of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration liaise with Turkish counterparts. According to Turkish press reports, his official communications had brought him into contact with suspected Gulen-affiliated officers in the Turkish security services. Topuz, therefore, was accused of belonging to the so-called “Fethullah Terrorist Organization,” or “FETO.” U.S. officials tried in vain to obtain a credible justification from Turkish authorities for Topuz’s arrest only to see them target a second employee of the Istanbul Consulate General for arrest, Mete Canturk.  In response to these developments, on October 8 the United States announced the indefinite suspension of non-immigrant visa services in Turkey. Then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass announced the decision in a videotaped statement, commenting, “Despite our best efforts to learn the reasons for [Topuz’s] arrest, we have been unable to determine why it occurred or what, if any, evidence exists against the employee.” “This arrest,” he continued, “has raised questions about whether the goal of some officials is to disrupt the long-standing cooperation between Turkey and the United States.”  The State Department resumed limited visa services in Turkey on November 6 and restored full services on December 28 after receiving assurances from Turkish authorities that no additional local employees were under investigation, that local staff will not be detained for performing their official duties, and that Turkish officials would provide the United States advanced warning of any future arrest. Nevertheless, both Uluçay and Topuz remain in custody to this day. In addition, on January 31, 2018 authorities placed Canturk, the other LES who was sought by authorities in October, under house arrest allegedly for links to the Gulen movement. Although formal charges have yet to be filed, he has been unable to return to work. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on November 15 to examine the deterioration of Turkey’s rule of law and the ongoing detention of Uluçay, Topuz, and several U.S. citizens on coup-related charges. In his testimony before the Commission, State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Turkey Jonathan R. Cohen stated, “It appears to us that Mr. Uluçay and Mr. Topuz were arrested for maintaining legitimate contacts with Turkish government and local officials and others in the context of their official duties on behalf of the U.S. government.” Helsinki Commissioners have raised their cases on several occasions and will continue to do so until they are released. In May, the Helsinki Commission’s bicameral, bipartisan leadership led a letter with the bipartisan House co-chairs of the Lantos Human Rights Commission urging President Trump to raise Uluçay’s case directly with President Erdogan during the latter’s official visit to Washington that month.  Later in the year, ten Commissioners wrote to Turkish President Erdogan calling on him to help swiftly resolve Uluçay and Topuz’s cases, among others. While chairing the Commission’s November hearing, Senate Commissioner Thom Tillis said, “The harassment and detention of our consulate staff has…overstepped the bounds of diplomatic conduct among partners.” Sen. Tillis clearly expressed that the United States should “not accept anything short of true and timely justice for our detained consulate staff and our citizens behind bars.” One year since his detention, justice for Hamza Uluçay—like others—remains a distant prospect.  

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