FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, November 23, 2008, San Francisco – In a letter that takes exception to the scathing criticism from the Public Diplomacy Council, a Washington, D.C-based nonprofit NGO, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages U.S. government-funded international broadcasts, insists that Congress had approved BBG’s decision to terminate Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to several countries, including Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, and India. On orders from the BBG, VOA radio programs to Russia had ceased on July 26, just 12 days before the Russian military attack on Georgia.
Many foreign policy experts, members of Congress, and press freedom NGOs saw the BBG’s decision as a major public diplomacy blunder. But the BBG continues to defend its actions and claims that it had a go ahead from Congress to end VOA radio programs. After the start of the summer war in the Caucasus, the BBG suspended its orders to stop radio broadcasts to Georgia but refused to resume VOA shortwave broadcasts in Russian.
The Public Diplomacy Council members who have criticized the BBG come from diplomacy, the armed forces, nonprofits and academia. The BBG has few if any defenders. FreeMediaOnline.org could not identify any member of Congress or a prominent public diplomacy expert who would express approval for the BBG’s decision to terminate VOA radio broadcasts to Russia.
In a reaction to widespread criticism, the BBG spokesperson Letitia King wrote to the Public Diplomacy Council that “it is false to claim that the BBG has acted in any way that contravenes Congress.” She also stated the BBG “received Congressional approval for all program changes that have been made, including language service reductions,” and she called on the PDC to correct its error.
Ms. King also took issue with the Public Diplomacy Council’s claim that “the Broadcasting Board of Governors has taken special aim at the Voice of America,” by abolishing the VOA Arabic Service and reducing its broadcasts in English to the Middle East and other regions. She argued that the BBG “has sought efficiencies throughout the organization in order to concentrate resources on language broadcasts.”
FreeMediaOnline.org reported that while planning to eliminate VOA radio broadcasts to Russia and Georgia, the BBG and its most recent chairman James K. Glassman, the current Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, also planned to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand their public relations operations. Among other things, the BBG had made an unsuccessful attempt to hire Paula Zahn, formerly of CNN, as their high profile spokesperson. The funds that the BBG wanted to allocate to this project could have paid for continuing VOA radio broadcasts to a country like Georgia.
In a document titled “Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting for a New Era,” the Public Diplomacy Council makes a number of proposals to reform U.S. international broadcasting and blames the BBG for undermining the effectiveness of the Voice of America. The Council has urged the future Obama Administration to immediately restore all radio services reduced at the VOA in FY 08.
From the Public Diplomacy Council’s “Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting
for a New Era,” November 17, 2008:
On July 26, 2008, twelve days before Russia invaded Georgia, the BBG silenced VOA Russian radio, and then ignored subsequent appeals to restore it. On September 30, the Board abolished VOA radio services in Serbian, Bosnian, and Macedonian and in the Hindi service to India, provisionally retaining Ukrainian and Georgian. This action directly contravened Congressional passage last December of an FY 08 appropriation prohibiting all cuts. The impact: loss of nine million listeners on the eve of a landmark U.S. presidential election.
The BBG spokesperson is vague as to what specific Congressional approval the BBG had received to cut VOA radio programs to Russia and other countries. Although the BBG letter does not offer a proof of any Congressional approval, the BBG seems to be using a highly legalistic argument that Congress has agreed to all the VOA program cuts since it had passed the Administration’s FY09 budget. In fact, members of Congress and a Congressional committee had told the BBG not to proceed with the planned radio program cuts at VOA.
On July 17, 2008, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT ) specifically warned the BBG not to stop or reduce broadcasts to Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tibet and to the Balkans, saying that “freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary” in these countries. But, acting in great secrecy and without any public announcement for U.S. or foreign media, the BBG stopped all VOA Russian radio programs on July 26.
Letter to the Public Diplomacy Council from the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Spokesperson
November 20, 2008
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) takes sharp exception to many points in “Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting for a New Era,” a statement issued by the Public Diplomacy Council (PDC) on November 17.
It is false to claim that the BBG has acted in any way that contravenes Congress. The BBG received Congressional approval for all program changes that have been made, including language service reductions. The PDC should correct its error.
The success or failure of the BBG should be judged on its broadcasting impact.
The post-9/11 public diplomacy charge was clear: to focus on Muslim audiences as an antidote to poisonous propaganda from Al Qaeda and other extremists. The challenge is how best to do that in specific countries, each with unique political factors, diverse media environments, and populations largely hostile to America.
The BBG has met this challenge by shaping broadcasts to fit the exigencies of each target audience. Since 2001, with support from the Administration and Congress, the BBG has launched six major communication channels – including 24/7 Dari and Pashto in Afghanistan, Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV for the Mi ddle East, Radio Farda and the Persian News Network for Iran, and Radio Aap ki Dunyaa for Pakistan — and ramped up daily broadcasting to Indonesia, Somalia, and other countries. These new initiatives have grown the BBG’s global weekly audience from 100 to over 175 million people. Broken out by country, this number includes: 27 million in Indonesia, 14 million in Iran, 13 million in Afghanistan, 12 million in Pakistan, 11.5 million in Iraq, 7 million in Egypt, 6 million in Syria, and 5 million in Morocco. Over 30 BBG language services now reach in excess of one million people weekly.
The PDC statement misrepresents the BBG’s work in other respects:
• PDC notes that VOA is chartered by statute to present international and U.S. news that is accurate, objective, and comprehensive; to represent America in all its diversity; and to present U.S. policies. But it fails to note that the statute governing broadcasting provides a similar mandate to all BBG broadcast entities. Each of the BBG’s broadcast entities maintains flexibility to tailor content to its audiences.
• Since FY 2000, VOA’s budget has increased over 47 percent, from $127 to $190 million in FY 2008. VOA has added television broadcasts to Afghanistan and Pakistan and increased programs in Persian, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Korean, Somali, and several other languages.
• The BBG has sought efficiencies throughout the organization in order to concentrate resources on language broadcasts. Since FY 200 3, 78 percent of BBG budgetary reductions were to administrative, engineering, and support costs. It would not be possible to reinstate particular language broadcasts without additional cost.
• VOA audiences in Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia continue to be served by high-quality VOA television and Internet programming, and by radio broadcasts from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. VOA television and Internet broadcasts in Hindi also continue.
• To assert that the BBG needs “real strategy and analysis” ignores the BBG’s comprehensive strategic plan, available at http://www.bbg.gov/, which details specific actions to yield measurable outcomes. BBG spending on global audience research has increased from less than $3 million in FY 2001 to $9.1 million in FY 2008.
What matters to the BBG is reaching as many people as possible with accurate, balanced news and information that gains their trust and makes a difference in their lives. The focus of discussion needs to be on how U.S. international broadcasters are going to better serve more people with quality journalism to advance U.S. strategic interests in difficult-to-reach countries were democracy and freedom of speech are in short supply.
We share the commitment of the Public Diplomacy Council to excellence in our international broadcasting efforts and value forward-looking discussion of how t o maximize our effectiveness.
Letitia M. King
Acting Director Office of Public Affairs
In a response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the BBG Office of General Counsel conceded that it cannot produce a specific document which would have given the BBG Congressional approval for its decision to cut VOA radio programs to Russia and other countries.
The Public Diplomacy Council is not the only group that is highly critical of the BBG. A statement issued by the leadership of the Voice of America employees’ unions, AFGE Local 1812 and AFSCME Local 1418, said that the Broadcasting Board of Governors “has been responsible for one blunder after another — to the point that its actions have compromised U.S. strategic interests.” Saying that “the elimination of Russian and Georgian radio broadcasts should be the last straw,” the VOA employees’ union leaders called on Congress to act immediately to dissolve the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Their letter also said that the BBG, “unilaterally and in contravention of the express language of the Congress, closed the Voice of America Russian Radio Service.” “In effect, we are deaf, dumb and blind in Russia,” the union letter said.
Articles highly critical of the BBG’s actions in the Middle East and Russia have been published by the independent journalism web site ProPublica.org. They point out that despite many major editorial and financial scandals, the BBG still favors the privatized broadcasting entities, such as Alhurra, over VOA. Investigative journalists at ProPublica.org, a non-profit led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, reported that a guest invited to participate in an Alhurra program had called for killings of American soldiers in Iraq. The network also aired a report on a Holocaust deniers conference in Tehran. According to ProPublica.org, “the reporter who covered the conference told viewers that Jews had provided no scientific evidence of the Holocaust.”
FreeMediaOnline.org president Ted Lipien said that the responsibility for such broadcasts rests with the BBG’s blind trust in high audience ratings as reflected in its spokesperson’s statement that “what matters to the BBG is reaching as many people as possible.” While the BBG claims that it wants ”accurate, balanced news and information” that gains the trust of audiences overseas, Lipien said that consultants hired by the BBG and its staff have been ordering BBG broadcasters to avoid airing views that audiences would strongly disagree with and to offer those that they like. Even invited program guests have been told on occasion to moderate their pro-human rights opinions to meet the expectations of the audience.
Lipien said that in addition to airing views of Holocaust deniers, these policies have also led to canceling of VOA call-in radio programs on human rights in Russia and firing of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) editors who defended human rights programming. Human rights activists overseas are also alarmed by BBG’s actions. Buddhist monks protested against BBG’s plans to reduce radio programs to Tibet. Earlier this year, a Russian NGO, the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, criticized RFE/RL for giving an entire hour of airtime to a former Russian Parliament deputy Andrey Savel’yev. The Russian human rights organization said that Mr. Savel’yev’s “chauvinist and racist views are well-known.” The Moscow Human Rights Bureau said that the station was guilty not only of enabling such people “to spread their poisonous views,” but also of legitimizing their ideas “in the minds of many impressionable radio listeners.” The appeal, written by the organization’s head Aleksandr Brod, argues that stations, which “in their pursuit of higher ratings” invite such “nationalist radicals,” are giving these enemies of democracy a larger audience and exacerbating ethnic tensions.