Congress tries to thwart BBG attempts to shut down Voice of America



by Quo Vadis (Marie Ciliberti)

Year after fiscal year, members of Congress in bipartisan fashion, question the  plans of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and its powerful Executive Staff to eviscerate the Voice of America. Since 1999, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has governed the units responsible for U.S. international broadcasting including the Voice of America, Radio/TV Marti and the grantee organizations:  RFE/RL, RFA (Radio Free Asia) and for the past several years, MBN (Middle East Broadcasting Network).

All sorts of reasons for dismantling VOA are presented.  The latest reasoning goes like this: the Chinese government jams VOA Mandarin and Cantonese broadcasts. In fact, the BBG people have demonstrated to congressional aides what jamming in China does to the signal.  Ergo, the broadcasts should be shut down.  Their solution?  The Internet, leaving out the critical fact that the Chinese government has complete control of the Internet thanks to its most efficient cyber-army.  Thankfully, Congress understood these facts when it decided to negate the BBG’s attempts last year to drastically cut VOA Mandarin and Cantonese radio and TV broadcasts to China. That did not deter the BBG Executive Staff from narrowing the reduction plan, now proposing to cut the VOA Cantonese Service in FY2013.

Another argument presented by the BBG in its jaunts to the Congress is:  since Mandarin and Cantonese speakers can read much of the Standard/Classical Chinese script, the BBG should cease Cantonese broadcasting.  The BBG and its Executive Staff neglect to mention that in their spoken forms, the Mandarin and Cantonese languages are totally different.  Therefore, by closing VOA Cantonese as they have been proposing for years, the BBG would effectively eliminate communications with over 60 million Cantonese-language speakers in China, including the residents of Hong Kong.

Using that curious reasoning of the BBG and its Executive Staff regarding jamming, one wonders how world history might have changed if the present BBG had governed international broadcasting during the long years of the Cold War? What would have happened if the VOA and RFE/RL had stopped its broadcasts to the countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR when jamming was extensive?   Would the Berlin Wall have fallen?  Would Lech Walesa have created the Solidarity movement?  Would the Republic of Georgia and the Baltic countries have had the chance at independence from the Soviet Union? Would the names of Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek been known to the Czechoslovak people?

During the Cold War, in-country monitoring of broadcasts in those areas conclusively showed that there were significant lapses in the effectiveness of the Soviet and Eastern European jammers to fully obliterate the signals (quite a common thing that happens in shortwave broadcasting). Past Directors of the VOA  during the Cold War understood the issues of radio reception and the ability of shortwave to elude jamming, especially outside the cities. They would never have proposed the cessation of U.S. broadcasts to critical areas as the BBG is doing now.  And if by chance they had, there would have been some intervention by the U.S. Information Agency which at one time had a prioritized list of countries for which U.S. broadcasts, in the interests of national security, were essential.

Concrete evidence since the ’89 fall of the Berlin Wall with the subsequent liberalization in countries escaping the Soviet yoke shows that listening to VOA broadcasts, in spite of attempts at signal jamming, was extensive throughout the USSR and Eastern Europe. Using the faulty logic of today’s BBG and its Executive Staff in cutting broadcasts because of jamming, U.S. international broadcasting would have lost what many have called its finest hour.

And then, there’s that sticky question of shortwave radio that the BBG and its Executive Staff keep saying is out-of-date and passe.  Ironically, their own research shows that over a billion people in the world tune in regularly to shortwave radio and that shortwave is necessary in countries with vast land stretches like Russia which encompasses nine time zones as well as China or Brazil.  Their own statements verify that the bulk of their present audience listens via radio.  Their conclusion?  But, of course, heave shortwave radio broadcasts and close the Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station in Greenville NC.  Due to opposition from BBG member Victor Ashe and intervention by North Carolina Congressman Walter B. Jones, the Greenville facility has been saved for now.

It is comforting to know that there are many in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, who do understand what the VOA mission is all about, including Congresswoman Betty McCollum. In her remarks at a subcommittee hearing several years ago, Congresswoman McCollum stressed the strategic importance of radio in delivering the message of America to the world.  She also pointed out that VOA is a vital part of the public diplomacy toolbox, a comment that no doubt aggravated the BBG Executive Staff who deny that any such function exists for VOA.  Broadcasting employees could only wish that her belief in the value of VOA broadcasts would be shared, in some way, by the BBG Executive Staff.


Judging by the BBG’s concerted attacks upon the Voice of America, the remarks of Congresswoman McCollum and the bipartisan opinion of a majority of the U.S. Congress regarding the importance of VOA broadcasts are alien to the BBG Executive Staff whose actions reveal their determination to throw this once-effective 70-year-old institution on to the trash heap of history.

Marie Ciliberti