C-Span on interview with Voice of America Director: VOA gradually ending broadcasts to China – BBG Watch

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Appearing on the C-Span’s program The Communicators, the Voice of America (VOA) newly-appointed Director, David Ensor, discussed how the U.S. government-funded broadcasting service and “national and international news and information network” is changing. In its online introduction to the interview, C-Span wrote: “VOA is gradually ending broadcasts to China and is planning to expand its internet and social media broadcasting instead.” David Ensor said, however, that personally he would like to see VOA shortwave radio broadcasts to China continue until “a better way” is found. This comments may put him on a collision course with some of the BBG executives and members who want to end all VOA radio and TV to China. Ensor also favors expanding VOA broadcasts for the Chinese satellite television audience. He had already threatened once to resign over disagreements with BBG officials.

From VOA Director David Ensor’s interview with C-Span:

My feeling is that there is a very, very great need for our voice to be heard in China. And we’re going to be looking at creative ways in trying to reach more of the Chinese people with Voice of America.

I’m expecting that it will include — not so much shortwave radio, which our data shows is not reaching very many people anymore in China, though it still reaches some — but more in terms of satellite television; we’ll be doing a lot of work on the Internet. And we’ll use Internet circumvention techniques to try to make sure people are able to see what we put on the Internet, even if there are attempts made by the government to prevent them from doing so.

C-Span explained that VOA is one of five broadcast services of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG wanted to end all VOA radio and television broadcasts to China in Mandarin and Cantonese on October 1, 2011. Congressional committees blocked this plan and criticized the BBG for poor judgement and the lack of transparency. The BBG was proposing Internet-only news delivery to China, where online access is heavily censored by the Chinese government and VOA websites are blocked. Only very few individuals are capable of circumventing such censorship and doing this may expose them to monitoring by the secret police.

In addition to strong bipartisan criticism in Congress, the BBG plan to end all VOA radio and TV to China, which was adopted before David Ensor became VOA director, was also criticized by human rights groups in China and in the United States. Subsequently, Ensor proposed an expansion of VOA satellite television programs to China, which BBG executives initially wanted to permanently terminate in favor of online access only.

In response to the question about the Congressional criticism of the BBG China plan, David Ensor tried to calm the critics by suggesting that he is not opposed to continuing VOA radio broadcasts on shortwave, but he noted that these are his personal views. He also suggested that VOA shortwave radio audience in China is very small, at one point implying that there may be only 200 Chinese dissidents listening to VOA radio broadcasts. Even the BBG’s highly unreliable audience surveys show that the audience for VOA radio in China numbers several million.

Ensor’s point about the number of VOA radio listeners in China could have been rhetorical, but it sent a misleading message to those who are not familiar with U.S. international broadcasting. Critics of the BBG point out that often history is influenced by key individuals such as Poland’s Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II when he was still a priest and later a bishop in communist-ruled Poland, or Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia when he was imprisoned during a coup staged by Soviet hardliners. All of them at such critical moments, when other sources of news were censored or blocked, listened to Western radio broadcasts on shortwave, including the Voice of America. Chinese human rights activists point out that most ordinary Chinese would never admit to survey takers that they are listeners to VOA radio programs. The BBG relies on a company in Beijing to conduct these surveys.

From VOA Director David Ensor’s interview with C-Span:

We need to find better ways to reach China. We’re working on it. I think satellite television has promise. There is a lot of work already being done in terms of Internet reach and mobile device reach, and I think it’s promising.

Shortwave radio, however, still reaches some people in China and personally, I think, we should persist until we have a better way. But, you know, there are different views on that, frankly. Is it a waste of money, is it not a waste of money?

There are people who think that broadcasting to China on shortwave is a waste of money because the audience is so tiny. Then there are others who say that even if you reach 200 dissidents in that vast country, it’s still worth all those millions. Well, you know, reasonable people can disagree.

I pledge to Congressman Rohrabacher and the rest of those listening, we will look for ways to be more effective in China. We want to reach as many Chinese people as we can.

Link to C-Span’s interview with Voice of America Director David Ensor.

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