BBG union president says Voice of America and surrogate broadcasters have different missions
In a letter to The Washington Post, Tim Shamble, president of the AFGE Local 1812 union representing the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) employees, argued that the Voice of America (VOA) and BBG-funded surrogate broadcasters have different missions and questioned arguments that there is unnecessary duplication. He observed, however, that surrogate broadcasting to some regions may no longer be necessary and proposed resuming Voice of America (VOA) programming in Arabic to the Middle East.
Letter to Al Kamen
Dear Mr. Kamen:
Concerning your 03/01/2013 column, “Budget cuts? The GAO says it’s found some“, it’s difficult for us at AFGE Local 1812 not to take issue with your analysis. We are not the only ones who dispute your conclusions tied into those made by the GAO. We do not view your conclusions nor those of the GAO as a clearheaded attempt to identify cuts to the budget, but rather, an echoing of the agenda pursued by certain managers of the Broadcasting Board of Governors who have stated for the past 10 years that their avowed goal is the morphing of all U.S. broadcast entities into an imitation global grantee organization.
In its flawed and superficial report, the GAO exhibited its lack of knowledge about the marked differences between the Voice of America mission and the surrogate broadcasters [the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Mideast Broadcasting Network (MBN)] and therefore, came to what we believe is the mistaken conclusion that because there was some overlap among them that there would be budget savings to cut one or the other. To your credit, you note that “the GAO and the Agency agree that much of the overlap is, as the BBG notes in its response, “mandated by statute,” meaning Congress.
The U.S. Congress created these surrogate entities to serve different purposes. Our position is that the main global voice in U.S. international broadcasting was and should remain the Voice of America which was created first, during the Second World War. Its mission since its inception has been to provide accurate and unbiased news to the world and to promote American values and institutions and explain American foreign policy. It’s all in the VOA Charter, co-sponsored by Senator Charles Percy and Congresswoman Bella Abzug and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Conversely, the surrogates were created specifically by the U.S. Congress to serve as alternatives for the domestic media in countries or regions under totalitarian control. That was the reason for the creation of RFE/RL and RFA. MBN is a different matter. The VOA Arabic Service was an important means of communication to the countries of the Middle East until its functions were transferred to a radio/TV entity (Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra TV) that has had little impact in the region and in fact, in many cases, is deemed laughable. Their missions do not include the promotion of American ideals and institutions and an explanation of American foreign policy. That’s where there could and would be some budget savings.
The surrogate RFE/RL stations created effective broadcasts to Eastern Europe during the Cold War. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, some believe their mission was accomplished to the Eastern European countries and the Baltics; therefore, Radio Free Europe, as an entity, should have been dismantled. But it wasn’t. In addition, when the mission to Eastern European countries diminished, the BBG still kept the corporate name and expanded Radio Liberty to other countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan when Voice of America broadcasts could have done the job as well or better. The U.S. Congress kept RFE/RL alive, for what purpose, no one really knows. That said, there is still a need for Radio Liberty broadcasts especially now to Russia where Putin has effectively muzzled all domestic and international broadcasts.
Both the Voice of America and the surrogates are two different prongs of strategic U.S. international broadcasting. Therefore, AFGE Local 1812, first and foremost, supports the retention not the destruction of the Voice of America. But it does not support of the elimination of the surrogates either.
On the one hand, there is a need to provide oppressed peoples with a means to counter the controlled media in their particular countries. Even more important, there is a pressing need to counter the negative views of America that our enemies are perpetuating around the world. Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, on more than one occasion, bemoaned the fact that our country’s international broadcasting mechanisms are broken even going so far as to say that the BBG, as an effective strategic communication Agency, is defunct and that the U.S. trails Al-Jazeera in its ability to communicate with the people in the Middle East as well as other parts of the world.
The crux of the matter is that the real intent of the BBG/IBB Executive Staff has been and remains its desire to defederalize the VOICE OF AMERICA into a fanciful global CNN and to supplant its civil service employees with contractors or foreign nationals. It has already succeeded in creating one of the most hostile workplaces in the federal government and year after year, comes out near the bottom in the OPM Human Capital survey.
You also mention that TV Marti (the OCB consists of Radio Marti and TV Marti) is successfully blocked by the Cuban government. However, you do not mention the fact that Radio Marti remains a crucial lifeline of information for the Cuban people. Anecdotal evidence gathered from Cubans emigrating to the U.S. shows a high (over 40%) percentage of regular listeners to Radio Marti. Regarding TV Marti, your arguments have some resonance: there could be temporary savings found by eliminating the blocked TV programs because television propagation is so expensive and there are less expensive alternatives to delivering a video product. However, all evidence points to the fact that radio shortwave broadcasts DO get through especially to outlying areas in Cuba outside the large cities like Havana.
If U.S. taxpayers deem U.S. broadcasting services to have become superfluous, they are welcome to let their wishes be known to their congressional representatives, who will act on their behalf.
It should not be up to select BBG/IBB Agency managers, or even the GAO, to decide matters that rest with our legislative branch.
Tim Shamble, President
AFGE Local 1812