BBG pushes health reporting and English lessons, downplays political and human rights journalism on Voice of America
Recent developments suggest that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages U.S government-funded international broadcasts, has chosen health reporting and English lessons as a partial substitute for political and human rights news to countries like China and Ethiopia. These countries are among those that block VOA news websites and jam shortwave radio broadcasts. The BBG strategy, according to critics, is driven by private Internet consultants and the BBG’s marketing focus on expanding audiences with programming that can pass Internet and broadcasting censors overseas.
Critics have charged that the BBG’s push of health programming to Africa has led to censoring of VOA news reports to Ethiopia, denial of coverage of political events, and the dismissal of the VOA Horn of Africa service chief who revealed the details of the BBG negotiations with the Ethiopian regime about local media placement of VOA health reports.
Three BBG members travelled to Africa to promote VOA health reporting. The BBG also paid for a special website to highlight the trip and the health programming initiative. At the same time, the BBG plans to fire 45 VOA Chinese Branch journalists who specialize in political and human rights reporting.
The Ethiopian regime had earlier threatened VOA journalists who work in Washington but who may be Ethiopian or dual citizens with the death penalty for their political reporting. Ethiopian Americans and media freedom advocates organized the largest ever anti-censorship demonstration in VOA’s history to protest BBG’s actions. A VOA official said later that there is no censorship of VOA news.
BBG member Michael Meehan reported that the BBG was “disturbed by some activity” surrounding the visit to Ethiopia, but he denied that he had anything to do with “appropriate actions,” which he said were taken by the VOA management.
While the BBG is pushing health reporting and English lessons as more suitable for the Internet and countries practicing cyber censorship, it had announced earlier its intention to end all VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China in Mandarin and Cantonese, claiming that almost no one listens to these programs on shortwave. This claim has been challenged by Chinese human rights activists and members of Congress who are trying to block the BBG plan to end the broadcasts.
Ted Lipien, a former VOA executive who now runs a media freedom NGO Free Media Online, said that “the BBG has lost its sense of mission, which used to be providing uncensored political news to those living under repressive regimes but is now being reduced to placating foreign censors in line with recommendations from BBG social media consultants and in the hope of gaining a larger audience.”
“The BBG is now dependent on a marketing strategy which drives programming decisions and downplays political and human rights reporting because the latter triggers jamming and Internet censorship and thus limits a potential audience only to those most dedicated to such causes. The BBG fails to ask what is the price of losing the human rights focus of U.S. international broadcasting,” Lipien said.
Lipien also commented that while there is a long-term value to doing community service programming, such as English lessons, or organizing health reporting workshop for Chinese journalists (See VOA press release.), the BBG is turning its back on both its primary mission and pro-democracy activists in China and elsewhere who see BBG’s actions regarding the Voice of America as a betrayal of U.S. commitment to freedom.
It is both sad and ironic, Lipien said, that at the latest BBG meeting, BBG members watched an English lesson video teaching Chinese youth the meaning of such words as eye gunk and hailed it as the future of social media placement in China but failed to ask themselves why this otherwise delightful program that may have some long-term public diplomacy value is not censored while VOA news program are.
It is also ironic, Lipien said, that at the same meeting the BBG condemned threats to media freedom in Nepal but failed to mention China since it would undermine its claim that VOA radio and TV news to that country are no longer needed. Free Media Online president expressed hope that Congress will disagree and force the BBG to change its international broadcasting strategy.
BBG and VOA press releases.
New VOA Africa Health Network Announced
Washington, D.C. — June 27, 2011 — The Voice of America’s African audience will have greater access to health information through the soon-to-be launched VOA Africa Health Network. BBG Governor Dana Perino announced the new initiative today during a speech before representatives of the Nigerian Government and the media in Abuja, Nigeria. She made her remarks at a town hall meeting sponsored by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Radio France Internationale.
“The establishment of the VOA Africa Health Network reaffirms an American commitment to support healthy living in Africa and establishes a unified approach that reaches listeners with the best information possible,” said Perino. “The Africa Health Network will pull together the work of all ten language services broadcasting to Africa and coordinate with VOA’s International Media Training Center to organize journalists’ training and public meetings on key health issues.”
The VOA Africa Health Network will take advantage of new technologies spreading throughout Africa along with radio and television. Nigeria alone has more than 70 million mobile phones and more than 40 million Internet users. VOA will use these technologies to more effectively provide information to its urban and rural audiences in Nigeria and throughout all of Africa.
“We see this as a means of increasing our dialogue with Africans about health issues that affect them every day,” said VOA Executive Editor and Acting VOA Director Steve Redisch. “VOA has always broadcast health programs, but we are now setting a new course for health programming to the African Continent.”
VOA Africa Health Network programming will reflect the varied health concerns of all Africans. Periodically, VOA will hold Town Hall meetings to bring together government representatives, health experts, and private citizens for a public discussion of critical health issues.
VOA Video Feature “OMG Meiyu” Goes Viral in China
Washington, D.C. — September 6, 2011 — The 24-year-old host of OMG Meiyu, a trendy, cross-cultural English teaching feature produced by Voice of America’s Mandarin Service, has become an overnight sensation in China, where viewers are flocking to social media sites to see her idiomatic lesson called Yucky Gunk.
More than 2-million people have now clicked on Jessica Beinecke’s quirky videos, which teach Chinese speakers about common English expressions used by young Americans. Yucky Gunk, one OMG Meiyu feature (in Mandarin “meiyu” means American English), has been viewed more than 1.4 million times.
“This particular subject was user-generated,” Jessica says, “But it’s really intimidating, the thing has gone viral. It took weeks for the show to get to a million total hits, then one week later, we’ve passed 2-million. Now I have to find ways to keep it fun.”
Jessica, whose work on a travel feature was honored by the Association for International Broadcasting last year, says, “We wanted to create an interactive social media platform for the OMG Meiyu travel show so that we can start conversations that help our Chinese audience better understand American culture.”
Jessica and her co-worker Yuyang Ren, write, host, and produce monthly OMG Meiyu English-teaching travel shows for the China Branch of VOA, showcasing what they describe as “the coolest people and places in America.”
VOA Director David Ensor calls Jessica’s work on OMG “a wonderful example of a simple but well-done program that builds cross-cultural dialogue and offers our audience the kind of information they want.”
Jessica became fascinated with Mandarin as a university student in Ohio. She shoots OMG at home on an aging personal computer, then edits the segments into short packages that are posted five days a week on popular Chinese websites, including Youku and Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Jessica says one of the things she likes the most about OMG is that the audience gets to participate, “they suggest topics all the time, we will never run short of ideas, and when we use an audience suggestion we mention it on Weibo, so fans always get credit.”
For more information about VOA visit our main website at www.voanews.com. Visit the VOA Mandarin Service at www.voanews.com/chinese. For media inquiries contact Kyle King in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
VOA Conducts First Health Journalism Workshop in China
Washington, D.C. — September 20, 2011 — A Voice of America-organized health reporting seminar in Hong Kong this week brought Chinese journalists together with U.S. experts for a first-of-its-kind meeting that focused on avian influenza, disaster preparedness and the use of new mapping technologies to track disease.
Melinda Frost, a health communications officer from the Beijing office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said the two-day gathering, “provided participants from a wide variety of news outlets in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau a broad perspective on the complexities of health emergencies and a glimpse of how to use social media to gain an intimate look at the public’s perspective on health.”
The workshop was the first VOA-organized training session on health issues for Chinese reporters. Health experts at the two-day event discussed the media’s role and responsibility in providing accurate information in a crisis. The journalists also toured the laboratory of the Influenza Research Center at Hong Kong University’s Pasteur Center.
Reporters from China Youth Daily, Yunnan Information Daily and Shenzhen Special Zone Daily and other organizations took part in the event.
Independent writer Jenny Xia said, “I do hope this kind of workshop can be organized regularly.”
Brian Herbert, who works with www.crowdmap.com, discussed how journalists can use new platforms to collect and map health information during a health crisis or a disaster.
Since 2006, VOA has trained more than 600 journalists around the world on public health information about avian influenza and disaster preparedness. The workshops, funded by the Department of State, have been held in Kazakhstan, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Senegal, Togo, Nigeria, Benin, Kenya, South Africa, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Argentina and Bolivia.
Statement of the Broadcasting Board of Governors: Recent Threats to Media Freedom
September 15, 2011 | Washington, D.C.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors made the following statement at its meeting on September 15, 2011.
The BBG takes the opportunity of this open meeting to shine a spotlight
on efforts to thwart media freedom and intimidate our journalists in
countries where we work. We’ll provide updates on the status of our
reporters and operations as a standard part of subsequent Board meetings.
The Board expresses profound concern about Iran, where Internet access
to reporting by VOA’s Persian News Network and RFE’s Radio Farda is
blocked, websites are aggressively hacked, shortwave broadcasts are
jammed and persons associated in any way with our programs are arrested
or worse. We learned recently that the Iranian government is jamming
satellite transmissions of the BBC’s Persian service TV. Taken together,
these practices amount to the construction of an “electronic curtain”
isolating the Iranian people from the rest of the world.
We protest the August 31 abduction and expulsion to the Iranian border
of a correspondent with RFE’s Azerbaijani service who was reporting a
story. We have raised the case with the State Department and local
officials and have requested an explanation from the Azerbaijani
We reject a legal warning issued in connection with VOA coverage of the
U.N.-backed tribunal in Cambodia that has been investigating atrocities
committed by the former Khmer Rouge regime. The Board insists on the
journalistic and legal responsibility of all our broadcast services to
provide balanced coverage of important issues, and objects to the
chilling effect the warning may have on independent media inside the
We also object to a recent pattern of intimidation towards RFA and VOA
reporters in Nepal, who have been physically threatened because of their
reporting on Tibet.
Finally, the Board condemns the routine violence that our journalists in
many countries face simply for doing their jobs. On September 3,
Alexandre Neto, a VOA reporter, was assaulted by plain-clothed police
who also confiscated some of his equipment while he was covering a
pro-democracy rally in the Angolan capital of Luanda. A cameraman with
Alhurra TV was attacked on August 10 in Yemen by several unidentified
men who tried to stab him with daggers.
The Board welcomes the news that Abdumalik Boboyev, a correspondent for
VOA, has finally been permitted to travel to Germany to study. Boboyev
was arrested and charged with ‘libel’ last year for his broadcasts. He
managed to avoid prison but was fined $11,000 for ‘insulting the Uzbek