“The Georgian Service of the Voice of America is demoralized,” a VOA staffer wrote to BBG Watch. It is one of many VOA English and language services slated for unprecedented cuts and reductions in the FY2013 budget proposed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
The BBG executive staff, now part of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) reporting to IBB director Richard Lobo, has been persistent in trying to close down numerous VOA broadcasting services or to reduce their programs. In 2007, these BBG executives wanted to cut the number of hours of radio to Tibet. A demonstration on Capitol Hill by Tibetan Buddhist monks and an unequivocal admonition from Congress thwarted their plans. Last year, Congress again thwarted their plans to end VOA radio and TV programs in Mandarin and Cantonese to China. This year, BBG executives again proposed to eliminate all VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet and to close down the VOA Cantonese Service. Many other VOA broadcasting services are also slated to be cut or reduced, with the loss of 170 VOA positions.
The BBG’s proposal calls for the elimination of VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia, a country facing a major threat from Russia and internal threats to freedom of the press. The VOA Georgian Service had already been slated to be shut down in 2008. “However, the war with Russia saved us within one day,” wrote a VOA staffer. (It did not save VOA Russian radio and television programs, which went silent 12 days before the war started. The BBG staff refused to resume them in response to the war emergency.) Because of the Russian-Georgian conflict, the Georgian Service was allowed to go from 30 minutes to one hour of daily radio broadcasts. But the BBG staff was determined to eliminate VOA radio to Georgia sooner or later.
For historical reference, this is how the BBG staff treated the Georgian Service in 2008 shortly before and after the Russian invasion of Georgia:
After the Russian-Georgian conflict had started, the BBG “approved continuation of VOA Georgian surge broadcasts for the foreseeable future” — not “indefinitely,” which would have been a proper term to use if the BBG wanted to send a strong message to former President, now Prime Minister Putin and assure VOA Georgian broadcasters that their work is valued and should continue. The press release, drafted by the BBG staff, reminded instead VOA Georgian broadcasters that all BBG broadcasting to Georgia was to be done by RFE/RL after September 30, 2008. There was not a single word of thanks for their heroic efforts to keep VOA broadcasts on the air. Reduced by the BBG cuts to only a four-person team, they have fought exhaustion, working without any days off since the crisis started.
In their FY2013 budget proposal, the BBG wants to cut four positions from the VOA Georgian Service.
“At this point, we have six positions, although only five are occupied. By this decision, we will be reduced to two staff positions. The VOA Director is saying we will retain several contractors,” wrote a VOA staffer.
“The Budget proposal is calling for a more TV-oriented Georgian Service. We do not know how we can do this with only two people on staff. The Service is demoralised. We feel this is crippling, especially since our staff was completed only a year ago,” wrote a VOA broadcaster.
In December 2010, the Service started a brand new TV program ( the first TV production by the VOA Georgian Service). It is broadcast on a nationwide public TV channel in Georgia. “It was well received by audiences and journalists,” wrote a VOA staffer.
But, as with many other VOA television programs placed on local networks abroad, there is a problem of journalistic integrity and adherence to the Voice of America Charter, a Congressionally-passed Public Law which mandates accurate, balanced and comprehensive coverage by VOA.
A VOA source reports that the Voice of America Georgian Service has “asked” not to produce Georgia-related political news reports for their television program being placed on the public TV channel in Georgia.
“We believe that this restricts us in communicating with the audience about the most pressing topics,” wrote a VOA staffer, “but for now we seem to be stuck with this affiliate network.”
This is a common problem for many VOA broadcasting services. Local affiliates dictate what kind of programming or reporting is or isn’t acceptable. If VOA does not comply, they take VOA programs off the air. These demands often originate with local regime and government officials who object to VOA news reports and want to ban or restrict them.
Television is particularly prone to this kind of pressure. Radio is less affected, but some local radio affiliates also try to restrict political coverage. “By crippling the Georgia Service by staff reductions, we will no longer be able to provide radio broadcasts, which — unlike television — are a major avenue for our political news reporting,” wrote a staffer. “We can say much more on the radio, and get much more of it out despite attempts to censor our output.”
A Voice of America source close to the situation listed several other factors contributing to the demoralization among the VOA Georgian Service staffers. They are convinced that BBG officials want to cripple VOA broadcasting to Georgia:
– Voice of America Georgian Service was recognized for its 6o years of broadcasting last December when BBG Governor Victor Ashe and VOA Director David Ensor presented us with a commemorative plaque. We believe that both Governor Ashe and Director Ensor were honestly trying to be helpful and supportive, but no doubt BBG staffers knew at that time what they were planning to do to our staff and our broadcasts and other BBG members went along with their plan without asking questions that ought to be asked.
– Russia continues to occupy 20 percent of the Georgian territory.
– Georgian media is ranked as partly free by Freedom House. The television market is increasingly controlled by the government. In the meantime, the Voice of America Georgian Service is being “asked” not to produce Georgia-related political reporting for its television program. We believe that this restricts us in communicating with the audience about the most pressing topics, but for now we seem to be stuck with this affiliate.
– The Voice of America Georgian Service represents the only American news media presence in Georgia. Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is obviously not in the same category. Broadcasting to Georgia is in the national security interests of the United States. By crippling the VOA Georgian Service with staff reductions, we no longer will be able to provide radio broadcasts, which — unlike our television program — are a major avenue for our political news reporting.
– The Voice of America Georgian Service is to lose for staffers. At this point, we have six positions, although only five are occupied.
– By this decision of the BBG, we will be reduced to two staff positions. The VOA Director is saying we will retain several contractors who are exploited, poorly paid and have no rights or benefits. They can also be fired without any recourse at any time. BBG officials also want to fire most of our staffers.
– The BBG Budget proposal is calling for a more TV-oriented Voice of America Georgian Service. We do not know how we can do this with only two staff positions.
– The Voice of America Georgian Service is demoralized. We feel this is crippling, especially since our staff composition was completed only a year ago.
– In December 2010, we started a brand new TV program ( the first TV production by the VOA Georgian Service) broadcast on a nationwide public TV channel in Georgia. It was well received by audiences and journalists.
– We feel the cuts and reductions proposed by the BBG staff are unfair since the Georgian Service has been performing extremely well despite not being given enough time to show its full potential — in radio, TV and web — after our last minute revival in 2008. It is just not fair.
– We feel that the next step of BBG executives, after crippling and reducing the VOA Georgian Service, is its closure. This is happening when media freedom in Georgia is worsening, critical parliamentary and presidential elections are coming up, the government is stepping up pressure on the opposition, and anti-American rhetoric is growing among the society at large. With the Russian elections in March and Putin’s expected victory, the situation in Georgia can only go sour, especially within the Russian controlled territorial enclaves. With Russia’s military presence inside these separatist regions and a potential for instability and conflict affecting U.S. military, political, economic and other interests in the region, Voice of America radio broadcasts in Georgian serve a vital national security function.