Silencing of Voice of America radio to Tibet to be explained by chief BBG strategist

BBG Watch Commentary

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Michael Meehan and BBG’s Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman will speak about their embattled federal agency’s new strategic vision for US international broadcasting at a panel discussion later this month organized jointly with Gallup which recently landed a controversial 50 million dollar audience research contract with the BBG. Also see the BBG announcement: “Gallup Joins BBG To Examine Media Freedom.”

The “Media Freedom and Public Confidence: Informing, Engaging, and Connecting the World through the Media” panel discussion will take place March 28, 2012 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. at The Gallup Building at 901 F Street, NW, Washington, DC. Attendance is by registration.

The announcement says that the discussion will focus on how the world’s populations perceive media freedom within their countries. The panelists will also share data on citizens’ confidence in their media.

The joint BBG/Gallup event may offer an opportunity for the public to learn more about the controversial agency which one US Senator described as the most worthless organization in the federal government. Its officials are consistently given the lowest leadership and management ratings in the annual Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee opinion surveys. Their union reports that employees have no confidence in the strategic plan and reforms announced recently by BBG officials.

BBG employees, their union and human rights groups all point out that while attacks on free press intensify around the world, the BBG is pushing for major cutbacks in broadcasting to countries without free media as part of the proposal for reorganizing US international broadcasting. Critics see it as an attempt by BBG officials to save their bureaucratic jobs at the expense of critical broadcasts and journalistic positions which they want to eliminate to protect theirs from budget cuts. A BBG spokesperson implied that keeping Tibetan and Cantonese radio broadcasts by both Voice of America and Radio Free Asia during a period of tight budgets would be irresponsible.

An anonymous Voice of America journalist said, however, that the decision to end VOA radio broadcasts in Tibetan and to abolish the VOA Cantonese Service suggests that the Broadcasting Board of Governors “has gone mad.” “This is happening on the day China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, heir apparent of the communist regime, arrives in Washington on a get-to-know-you visit. This is happening while Tibet is burning. A day after the 23rd Tibetan monk self-immolated to protest unprecedented Chinese crackdown on their religion,” a journalist wrote.

Bruce Sherman who will speak at the joint BBG/Gallup panel is the chief BBG strategic planner behind unprecedented recent and previous cuts to Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts to Tibet, China, Russia, and Afghanistan as well as major proposed reductions in VOA English and Spanish news programs. The event will offer an opportunity for Sherman and Meehan to explain the silencing of the Voice of America to most of the world and for members of the public to ask questions about the BBG’s strategy and its restructuring plan.

Michael Meehan is one of nine members (there is currently one vacancy) of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors which manages all civilian US government-funded international broadcasting. The majority of BBG members have approved the latest programming cuts, although senior Republican member Ambassador Victor Ashe has been raising objections about some of the Board’s decisions and plans, including the price tag of the audience research contract with Gallup, and expressing concern about poor management and poor employee morale.

Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup, is scheduled to speak at the event. At about the same time the BBG had voted to approve the 50 million dollar five-year contract with Gallup, it had also decided to end numerous broadcasts, mostly at the Voice of America, and to eliminate positions of over 200 broadcasters and support staffers.

Despite these programming cuts, the BBG’s administrative organization, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), has added dozens of new positions in the last two years to support far fewer programs. Critics argue that much of the audience research the BBG needs is either free or can be purchased at a much lower cost, while audience research in China and other countries ruled by authoritarian regimes is practically impossible to conduct among the intimidated population without getting highly biased results.

Even when audience research results are accurate, critics argue that by applying commercial marketing analysis to what are unique US taxpayer-supported journalistic programs, BBG and IBB officials have shown their inability to draw program planning conclusions that are appropriate for US broadcasters who are required by law to speak on behalf of the United States and are committed to promoting human rights and democracy.

One critic said that while good audience research is absolutely essential, seeing the larger geopolitical and foreign policy picture combined with the ability to interpret the data for a non-commercial US government-funded broadcaster with a unique public mission are even more important. This ability has been spectacularly absent among BBG strategists, the critic told BBG Watch.

Critics have also accused BBG officials of insisting on programming changes based on audience research results which showed that audiences in countries like China and Russia object to strong criticism of their governments’ human rights records. BBG officials and their private consultants reportedly have made these demands during program and audience research reviews with BBG broadcasters, arguing that suggested programming changes will enable them to improve audience ratings. Some journalists who objected to these orders were dismissed or their programs eliminated by BBG executives. BBG experts reportedly told the Voice of America Russian Service not to refer to the Russian military attack on Georgia in 2008 as an invasion because according to their research audiences in Russia object to such an description.

BBG journalists reported that officials have also transmitted to them requests from repressive regimes and affiliate stations abroad demanding limits on political reporting while asking for less controversial non-political coverage.

The original BBG’s founding mandate was to protect the Voice of America and other taxpayer-supported international broadcasters from frequent past interference with news reporting from the State Department and the White House, but critics charge that interference from the BBG and its audience researchers and strategists can be even more insidious.

In their FY2013 budget proposal, BBG officials insist that there is duplication between the Voice of America and the so-called private surrogate broadcasters such as Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Officials claim that rather than relying of the federally-owned and federally-operated Voice of America, the job of informing audiences about the United States and US policies can be done in many countries by privately-run broadcasters also managed by the BBG.

These plans have met with strong bipartisan opposition in Congress which last year had blocked the BBG plan to end VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China. Unlike the surrogate broadcasters, the Voice of America has a Congressionally-approved Charter to inform the world about the United States.

Critics describe the BBG cuts to the Voice of America as an indirect attempt to de-federalize it by transferring assets to private broadcasting entities under BBG’s management and lessening Congressional and public scrutiny over all US international broadcasting.

The latest BBG proposal to end VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet and VOA Cantonese broadcasts to China at the time of increasing reports about self-immolating Tibetan monks and people seeking basic human rights in China being sent to languish in the Laogai –- re-edcuation through labor camps — have sparked an outrage among human rights organizations.

The International Campaign for Tibet NGO has included an appeal to Congress to continue VOA radio programs to Tibet. The online appeal has already produced thousands of messages to more than 470 congressional offices, the International Campaign for Tibet reported. One BBG critic said that BBG strategists seem completely unable to understand political and human rights dimensions, such as the suffering of the Tibetans and Chinese dissidents, that audience research in countries like China, Russia, Iran, and Cuba cannot properly capture.

Critics also point out that BBG strategists have an unusual record of proposing US broadcasting cuts shortly before major international crises or assaults on human rights. The latest BBG program cutting proposal preceded a major spike in repression in China and Tibet, while the BBG’s 2008 decision to end Voice of America radio and TV broadcasts to Russia came just days before Russia launched a military attack on neighboring Georgia. In another planning blunder by BBG strategists, the proposed VOA Chinese broadcasting cuts in 2011 were to take effect on the anniversary of the founding of communist China. The latest BBG proposal again calls for ending Voice of America radio broadcasts to Georgia.

In justifying previous and current proposed cuts, BBG officials insist they need to transfer resources from broadcasting to support new media technologies. But critics charge that since many of these technologies are free or inexpensive, the money taken from US government broadcasting to strategically important countries like China and Russia is wasted on the BBG and IBB bureaucracy and lining the pockets of big private contractors while contract employees are being shamelessly exploited.

An anonymous VOA journalist wrote that in addition to ending Voice of America Tibetan radio, BBG strategists are decimating VOA broadcasts to the Laos (4 out of 6 employees), Vietnam (10 out of 15 employees) and Cantonese to China (all 7 employees). The journalist observed that the BBG is cutting America’s broadcasts to three out of five remaining communist regimes. The journalist added that while planning all these cuts, the BBG promoted Bruce Sherman to an SES position, hired an SES director for the Office of Digital Design and Innovation, hired a BBG communications director, another SES. All three SES positions were created as the Broadcasting Board of Governors was planning to eliminate dozens of rank and file journalists. “Who needs this Board that cannibalizes its own worker bees to feed itself?” — the journalist asked.

Bruce Sherman and Michael Meehan will have a chance to respond to this and similar questions at the joint Broadcasting Board of Governors and Gallup panel discussion in Washington on March 28.

View more information and register for this event on the Gallup website HERE.

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