U.S. International Broadcasting: Recommendations from the Eurasian Experience

Thomas Kent, April 22nd, 2019
The Atlantic Council

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Russian information operations are carefully curated for each country that Moscow targets. For their own citizens, Russian media describe their country as all-powerful, yet the victim of constant plots and slander. Moldovans are told a predatory European Union (EU) is impoverishing the country and tearing it from Moscow’s benevolent orbit. The message to Ukrainians is that their country is a corrupt and incompetent state ripe for an extremist coup. In Georgia, Moscow aligns itself with those who claim the EU and NATO are bent on destroying the nation’s social and religious values.

Perhaps the most important US tool for contesting these narratives, directly to the populations Moscow targets, is US international broadcasting. A far cry from the precarious shortwave operations that did battle with Soviet jammers in the Cold War, US government-funded networks now pump out content on television, radio, the web, and social networks, operating in sixty languages. Audiences in the formerly Soviet countries of Eurasia are a particular target of these services. 

This paper will look first at fundamental issues of principle and mission that continue to fuel the debate over US international media. It will then assess the broadcasters’ challenges and performance in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. The paper concludes with recommendations on USAGM operations in those four nations and on the agency’s work as a whole. The recommendations address the perpetual question of whether the networks should be a public diplomacy tool or independent news sources; the value of the networks’ individual brands; the need to make audience research a far more central element of network operations; and the importance of better preparation for worst-case scenarios.