BBG Watch Commentary
Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) spoke at the open board meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) held in Washington, DC on March 14, 2018. In her remarks to the board and the public, Noonan raised the issue of potential conflicts of interest among BBG and Voice of America (VOA) officials and executives who may have corporate or family business interests in China. Noonan said that “Tibetans and Uyghurs are subject to unspeakable genocidal crimes and one of their only voices is Radio Free Asia” (RFA).
Other CUSIB members met recently in Washington, DC with some of the VOA Iranian and Chinese journalists who are deeply unhappy with the current management of their services and VOA and BBG leadership. CUSIB members also had discussions with White House senior staff last week on the urgent need for management reforms at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
In her remarks at the board meeting on March 14, CUSIB’s Ann Noonan spoke about the need to protect VOA and Radio Free Asia from any cuts in budgets and programming as these two different entities managed by the BBG struggle to counter Chinese propaganda and disinformation with minimal resources.
In the case of VOA, there have been reports of management attempts to punish journalists who resisted caving in to pressure from the Chinese government while the senior management claims that these Mandarin Service broadcasters did not follow good journalistic practices and were insubordinate. VOA Mandarin Service journalists reject these charges as false.
As a result of senior management’s decisions, VOA Mandarin Service is believed to be deeply demoralized along with large segments of the rest of the workforce VOA and federal parts of the BBG. BBG’s federal employees give the senior management extremely low satisfaction and leadership ratings in Office of Personnel Management (OPM) annual employee surveys. RFE/RL employees are also believed to be deeply demoralized. Of all the BBG entities, only Radio Free Asia seems to have good management who knows how to motivate journalists.
The Voice of America Mandarin Service lost much of its previous reputation and credibility among Chinese audiences unhappy with the shortening of VOA interview with Chinese whistleblower businessman Guo Wengui ordered in April 2017 by VOA’s most senior managers, including VOA director Amanda Bennett and deputy director Sandy Sugawara, against objections from VOA Mandarin broadcasters who wanted the interview to run its full length.
For full video of March 14, 2018 BBG open board meeting, click HERE.
VOA director Amanda Bennett spoke at length at the board meeting about pro bono program contributions from well-known American journalist Greta Van Susteren, who also made refreshing remarks against generally bureaucratic tone of some of the other presentations read from sheets of paper without any visible engagement or passion and combined with most cases with poorly-produced videos. Even the video on persecution of BBG journalists failed to clearly point to the Russian government as being responsible for most of the harassment of reporters in Ukraine, including Crimea.
The arrival of Van Susteren has considerably increased standards of reporting in English, but most VOA language services can only partially benefit from her contributions. Her unclear status at VOA has raised questions as to whether she is an unpaid commentator, whose views need to be balanced by another similarly high-profile commentator, or just a reporter, and whether VOA Charter requirements apply to her the same way as to VOA staff reporters. Even Van Susteren alluded in her remarks to some confusion at the organization but expressed her admiration for the work of VOA journalists and their non-commercial journalistic mission.
Bennett did not address any of the controversies which developed during her own tenure at VOA, including highly biased and partisan reporting by some VOA staff journalists, who are U.S. federal employees, as well as criticism of recent VOA coverage from Chinese and Iranian audiences, particularly on social media.
In his remarks at the March 14 BBG board meeting, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president Thomas Kent also did not address accusation of poor leadership and mismanagement being voiced publicly on social media by RFE/RL’s award-winning journalists, including former prestigious Vaclav Havel Fellows and highly respected human rights reporters Khadija Ismailova and Shahida Tulaganova.
In Washington, a group of Voice of America Persian Service journalists has prepared a memorandum in which they decry what the employees see as a loss of VOA’s objectivity and mismanagement of human and capital resources by the service’s leadership, senior VOA executives and the top leaders of VOA’s parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
In recent months, there has been a lot of negative coverage about VOA Persian, these VOA journalists wrote.
On February 12, Rand Corporation’s Alireza Nader made an observation in a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council that “the U.S. government should reform Voice of America to adopt a position that is more in line with U.S. interests regarding Iran. Voice of America used to be [a] very influential news program in Iran. It no longer is. It has lost its influence.”
Reza Pahlavi, the older son of the late Shah of Iran, warned in a video interview that U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets broadcasting to Iran — Radio Farda operating within Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty with headquarters in Prague and the Voice of America in Washington, both managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors federal agency, help the regime to stay in power.
Khadija Ismayilova, a former political prisoner in Azerbaijan, an investigative reporter and winner of many international journalistic awards who recently quit RFE/RL, wrote in a public Facebook post that senior executives in charge of the organization suffer from “a crisis of career stagnation“ and don’t know how to communicate with journalists.
“People do not leave good organizations,” Ismayilova wrote in another public Facebook post. “I resigned from this organization because they didn’t hesitate to fire the best journalists,” she added.
After RFE/RL’s senior executives, Thomas Kent and Nenad Pejic, acting with apparent consent from Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John F. Lansing, fired one of the organization’s most respected journalists Dr. David Kakabadze who until January 30 was director of RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, a group of six former RFE/RL Vaclav Havel Fellows — some of the best young journalists from East Central Europe and Eurasia who had worked at RFE/RL — wrote: “Many of us fighting censorship in our home countries felt like we had found respite and refuge at RFE/RL. This is why it is all the more painful to watch the management style to replicate yet another authoritarian regime many of us are familiar with.” Dr. Kabakadze was offered another position but declined the offer and chose to leave the organization.
In his remarks read at the board meeting, RFE/RL president Thomas Kent said that “we [RFE/RL] have been very careful to cover all sides of the election [in Russia].” “If Putin wins, and that seems likely, our coverage will also have reflected why people support him and the strength he has brought to the campaign and the country,” RFE/RL president Thomas Kent told the Broadcasting Board of Governors which hired him for his current position.
Mr. Kent did not explain at the March 14 BBG meeting what exactly is “the strength” which, according to him, Vladimir Putin has brought to Russia and why so many outstanding journalists have left RFE/RL during Mr. Kent’s tenure.
BBG CEO John Lansing and VOA director Amanda Bennett did not explain why audiences in China and Iran object to Voice of America coverage, while in Russia both VOA and RFE/RL programs have far less web traffic than even some of the modestly funded independent Russian news sites and individual bloggers.
Many Iranians have posted on social media highly negative comments not only about VOA but also about Radio Farda which is managed by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and ultimately by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its CEO John Lansing and his deputy Jeffrey Trimble.
The White House has not yet officially submitted for confirmation by the U.S. Senate its reported choice of award-winning documentary producer and former public media executive Michael Pack to replace John Lansing as BBG CEO. Sources said that Pack’s clearance process still continues. According to some unconfirmed reports, some progress on his nomination may have been made in the last few days with hopes that changes and reforms at the agency may be coming soon.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
My name is Ann Noonan and I honored to serve as the Executive Director for the Committee for US International Broadcasting.
CUSIB has no budget. We are an all-volunteer non-profit organization that continues to support journalism for media freedom and human rights.
Our organization was formed seven years ago when the BBG planned to eliminate Cantonese and Tibetan Services.
This year, CUSIB is again asking for assurance by the BBG Governors that the budget will not include any reduction or elimination of Voice of America’s Mandarin, Cantonese and Tibetan Services, including short wave and medium wave radio, television and internet services.
We would like to know the status of BBG management to finally hire a VOA Chinese Branch Chief, and projections about the hiring process for the new Cantonese and Mandarin Service Chief. This will affect the operation and long term planning for both VOA’s Cantonese and Mandarin Services to counterbalance China’s propaganda machine. People in Hong Kong and China know the VOA brand name and know how VOA represents the opinion from the United States.
It is important to remember that Voice of America broadcast services are separate and distinct from the surrogate broadcasting provided by Radio Free Asia.
As China’s government continues to commit unspeakable crimes against Tibetans and Uyghurs, it is necessary for Radio Free Asia’s funding and support to increase.
I’d like to speak a little about concerns that may exist regarding any possible conflicts of interest that could impact decision-making and the quality of the content of broadcasting here at the BBG.
These include how decisions are made, about who should be interviewed, who should be hired or fired, and how much funding from the overall BBG Budget is taken from journalists and put into administrative processes.
If there are any BBG Governors or persons in management at the BBG who have business investments in China, who are accountable to shareholders invested in China, or whose spouses may have investments in China, I wonder if you will refuse to turn a blind eye to the oppression and genocide against Tibetans and Uyghurs.
While Tibetans and Uyghurs are subject to unspeakable genocidal crimes and one of their only voices is Radio Free Asia, are you too aligned with the authorities who allow these atrocities to occur? Are any of you unwilling to criticize China’s government because of its economic power?
Sadly, I believe that what the Uyghur and Tibetan people are experiencing now is the future that China’s Underground Catholics face.
Are any BBG Governors and management unwilling to distance themselves from Islamophobia which is rampant in the XinJiang Autonomous Region, where China’s government has detained hundreds of thousands of innocent Uyghurs in detention camps, arrested RFA sources who are suppressed and targeted for daring to speak out about human rights matters, and the loved ones of Uyghur journalists who work at RFA?