In response to overwhelming criticism from human rights groups, journalists and one of its members, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) will consider a new China strategy and reversal of its planned cuts to Voice of America (VOA) Tibetan and Chinese broadcasts and online news content.
The BBG Strategy and Budget Committee has requested and received a new China strategy document from a working group composed of BBG and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials and the heads of the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia (RFA). One of the recommendations in the new strategy document is the restoration of all funding for China broadcasts, a major reversal of the executive staff’s earlier position. This includes VOA Tibetan radio and its online radio news content and all of VOA Cantonese radio, television and Internet news.
Echoing the warnings of their critics often expressed on the unofficial BBG Watch website, the BBG and IBB executive staff has now concluded that “As America’s focus on China’s role in the world sharpens, the BBG must develop a more global vision for China.” “Failure to reach out to China’s 1.3 billion people cannot be an option for the United States at this point in history,” the new BBG China strategy document states.
The new China strategy document also states that “VOA and RFA will maintain a robust radio presence, delivering programming via SW [shortwave] as well as via two separate satellite paths.” The content and the tone of the new document represent a drastic departure from previous strategy papers produced by the BBG and IBB executive staff.
Efforts to save VOA Tibetan radio broadcasts and the VOA Cantonese Service have been led by BBG Governor Ambassador Victor Ashe against the initial opposition from most of the other BBG members who had accepted the staff’s earlier programming cuts proposal. Ashe, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and former mayor of Knoxville, TN, is the senior Republican member on the bipartisan Board which runs U.S. international broadcasting. He warned that members of Congress from both parties would never agree to silencing Voice of America Tibetan and Cantonese broadcasts. The BBG executive staff made a similar effort last year to eliminate VOA Mandarin and Cantonese radio and TV. The proposal was soundly rejected in bipartisan House and Senate committee votes.
The BBG has received numerous protests against the proposed cuts from outside groups and individuals, including a plea from a highly respected human rights activist Annette Lantos. She is the wife of the late Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos with whom she had worked on numerous human rights causes around the world. She was joined in her criticism of the BBG decisions by the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB). Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, NGO defending women’s rights in China, also issued a plea in defense of Voice of America Tibetan and Cantonese broadcasts. The union representing BBG employees, AFGE Local 1812, has also issued strong warnings against the BBG and IBB executive staff’s plans to eliminate broadcasts to strategically important countries and regions while expanding bureaucratic positions and outside contracting.
At the April 10 meeting of the BBG Strategy and Budget Committee, Ashe persuaded other committee members, Governors Michael Meehan and Enders Wimbush, to direct the staff to draft a new China strategy proposal. The document will be considered by the full Board at their meeting on Friday, April 20, at the Radio and TV Marti headquarters in Miami, FL.
The BBG executive staff is also responsible for other controversial decisions, including the proposal to slash Voice of America English and Spanish broadcasts and positions. Their FY 2013 budget proposal also includes cuts in Voice of America and Radio Free Asia broadcasts to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and numerous other reductions in VOA broadcasting and news operations. The FY 2013 BBG budget proposal would effectively remove the BBG as an international broadcaster in Latin America where Iran is introducing a 24/7 Spanish language satellite television channel.
Critics posting on the BBG Watch website have charged that the proposed cuts in Latin America and in radio broadcasts to Tibet, China and other countries without free media are an attempt by the unscrutinized BBG and IBB executive staff to protect and expand the number of their own bureaucratic positions and their control of U.S. international broadcasting. According to these critics, the China cuts would be used to pay for the proposed English language Global News Network (GNN) and a $50,000,000 audience research contract with Gallup.
The idea for a global news agency run by the U.S. government was reportedly pushed by the former BBG chairman Walter Isaacson who resigned earlier this year. Isaacson is a former CEO of CNN and author of the best selling biography of Steve Jobs.
Critics writing for the BBG Watch website describe the news agency idea as redundant and lacking a target audience. They argue that sharing of news among various BBG entities should be done internally at a minimum cost rather than by spending millions of dollars on a news agency that will provide information which is already available on various BBG entity websites.
Critics also argue that the BBG staff proposal to merge the administration of various BBG surrogate broadcasters will undermine their independence and effectiveness and will transfer the control of vital broadcasting and news operations from experienced area specialists to BBG and IBB bureaucrats.
The new BBG China strategy document does not address these larger issues. Critics fear, however, that the executive staff will not easily give up proposals designed to transfer resources from broadcasters to bureaucrats.
The new strategy document offers BBG members the following options to consider at their April 20 meeting in Miami:
“Additional Options on China for Board Consideration
1. The FY13 budget proposal as transmitted to the Congress. This would end VOA Cantonese and VOA Tibetan on radio (VOA Tibetan on satellite TV would continue), cut two positions from RFA Mandarin, close the RFA Taipei office, and reduce shortwave and medium wave transmissions significantly.
2. Restore service on all platforms while retaining some savings from proposed reductions through integrated programming. Rather than maintaining separate but coordinated VOA and RFA programs on television and radio, RFA content could be windowed into VOA television in Mandarin and Tibetan, while VOA content is windowed into RFA radio programs in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Tibetan. This would allow BBG to take some of the cuts envisioned in the FY13 submission, using the savings to fund other priorities, while maintaining both broadcasters in all languages on all media platforms.
3. Restore all funding for China broadcasts and request an enhancement for FY13. If the Board decides to take this approach, RFA and VOA will need time to prepare enhancement proposals for Board consideration.”