A Guest Commentary
BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from Alex Belida and Sonja Pace, former senior news executives and foreign correspondents with VOA. Views expressed are only those of the authors and not of BBG Watch, its volunteers, or sponsors.
We invite those with opposing views and others who want to comment on this or other issues followed by BBG Watch to submit their op-eds for consideration.
Former Voice of America senior White House correspondent, foreign correspondent and language service chief Dan Robinson has responded to this commentary in his own op-ed: “Maximum Hubris Revisited: Some Predictions, and Cutting Through the Propaganda – ROBINSON OP-ED,” July 18, 2014.
Another response to this op-ed was posted by The Federalist, one of our regular commentators: How Voice of America Destroys Itself, BBG Watch, July 22, 2014.
Don’t Silence America’s Voice
By Alex Belida and Sonja Pace
For more than 70 years the Voice of America has been a beacon of hope for audiences around the world hungry for the truth and credible news. Legislation before Congress now threatens to undermine VOA’s journalistic integrity and turn it into a government mouthpiece.
A wide ranging bill (HR4490) to ostensibly reform U.S International Broadcasting recently passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee with bipartisan support and a separate bill is being considered in the Senate. Even though Congress will soon go into recess, if the proposed legislation passes it would prove disastrous to VOA. Let’s hope reason will prevail.
Over the years members of Congress have supported VOA, the flagship of U.S. government-funded international broadcasting. Now, one lawmaker is saying the whole agency should be scrapped and there have so far been no loud protestations to the contrary. Behind all this seems to be growing frustration on Capitol Hill over mismanagement and bungling by the agency’s oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors, its bureaucracy and VOA’s own senior management. Some lawmakers say they aim to reform the agency, but unfortunately the badly needed reform measures being considered threaten to undermine VOA’s hard won journalistic credibility and sow the seeds of the organization’s ultimate demise.
The House bill professes that VOA has been “indispensable” over the past 70 years and “should remain the flagship” of U.S. international communications efforts. However, it also narrows the focus of what VOA should do to — “original reporting in accordance with its public diplomacy mandate…” The sponsors of the bill do not deny they want to align VOA more closely with the government’s overall public diplomacy strategy although they do deny wanting to turn VOA into a propaganda agency as they seek to combat the recent expansion in international broadcasting by China and Russia. Supporters of the bill insist it will not impinge on VOA’s journalistic independence, but many current and former VOA employees are skeptical — and with good reason. They know full well that in the past, members of Congress have interfered in the content of VOA programming and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is supposed to act as a “firewall” to prevent such political interference, has been woefully ineffective in doing so. Critics of the proposed legislation argue that “public diplomacy” is just a nicer name for propaganda. Most of VOA’s audiences are in countries where a free press does not exist and those audiences know propaganda when they see it. Once VOA loses the trust of its audience it becomes ineffective and irrelevant.
There is some support for the proposed legislation even within VOA, including some contributors to the BBG Watch and the local chapter of the AFGE Union. However, there has also been a virtual revolt against the bill within the VOA Newsroom and English. Reliable inside sources tell us that over 100 VOA journalists have banded together asking Congress to preserve and protect VOA’s journalistic integrity. They vehemently object to provisions in the bill that VOA “promote” the broad foreign policies of the United States and that VOA is to be given direction from the CIA and the Pentagon. They know that would be the death knell for the organization and the principles it has so long cherished.
Sponsors of the reform bill say they want to eliminate duplication in programming between VOA and several non-federal but still government-funded surrogate broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN). They say such streamlining will eliminate waste of taxpayer funding. These surrogates broadcast to many of the same audiences as VOA and bizarrely the legislation seems to blame VOA for that duplication and not the so-called “independent” entities. In reality, the inefficiency and duplication is mainly the result of earlier actions by Congress in funding separate entities when it could easily and less expensively have given VOA additional money to expand its broadcasts. There is no need, for example, for RFE to broadcast to such non-European targets as Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan – countries already reached by VOA.
Statistics show VOA’s dominance in audience share worldwide. According to the latest BBG-funded research, nearly 165 million people tune in to VOA programs, accounting for 80 percent of the audience share for all of the BBG’s outlets. RFE/RL reaches just 19.9 million, RFA a paltry 10.8 million and the Middle East Network 30 million. However, provisions of the House reform bill seem intent on attacking VOA’s dominant audience share.
The first assault is on VOA’s impressive Africa audience. VOA’s top ten global audiences include Nigeria with 20.7 million listeners and Ethiopia with 6.9 million. VOA’s English to Africa service airs in 19 countries on the continent and reaches an audience of more than 25 million people who listen or watch its programs every week. A widely overlooked provision of the original House bill would strip away VOA’s well established and highly regarded Africa broadcasts and fold them into a newly formed Freedom News Network, (FNN), whose creation is at the center of the legislation. This ostensibly independent, but still government funded network, would include the surrogate broadcasters RFE/RL, RFA and the Middle East Network.
The legislation suggests a similar fate awaits VOA’s successful Persian Service, which could be handed over to Radio Free Europe, thereby stripping VOA of its audience of 14.5 million in Iran. The loss of those two audience blocs would leave VOA with little to justify its very existence. One can only surmise that this is exactly what the bill’s sponsors and supporters want. Led by conservatives, they have long complained about VOA’s insistence on maintaining journalistic independence.
But yet another poison pill awaits. The proposed legislation suggests VOA would be barred from reporting local and regional news overseas and permitted only to cover the United States, U.S. officials and U.S. interactions with international organizations. This is likely to result in the closure of VOA’s once proud but already decimated global network of foreign bureaus.
There is little doubt of the need to reform U.S. international broadcasting. VOA in particular has been poorly managed. The top leadership has shown little or no vision, some top managers have no real understanding of the needs of foreign audiences, some are allowed to manage through intimidation and cronyism and still others believe that the answer to the agency’s woefully low morale is to hold bingo nights and skating parties. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA and the various entities, has been described by no less than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “defunct.” The BBG and its support element, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), are top heavy with highly paid and marginally effective personnel. The IBB has in recent years expanded, while the numbers of journalists and broadcasting staff at VOA have continued to be slashed to fit budget cuts. Cutbacks in the VOA Newsroom have reduced personnel to the point where it has become nearly impossible to properly cover a 24/7 news cycle.
This could be easily remedied — remove or reassign ineffective senior managers; reorganize the agency’s structure from the Board on down; put the various entities under one strong VOA flagship with a mandate to do honest journalism — to lead by example and show audiences around the globe that a free press is a crucial component of a functioning democracy and that the United States stands by that principle.
The advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders has issued a statement in support of maintaining VOA’s journalistic independence and a May 25th editorial in the New York Times issued a similar call, noting “It is critical that the sponsors guarantee the American public as much as the world that standards of professional journalism will not be sacrificed in favor of a simplistic propaganda megaphone.” Similarly, a June 8th editorial in the Washington Post called on lawmakers to “resist the temptation to turn the Voice of America into a government mouthpiece,” calling on the U.S to not lose faith in its own principles. VOA and its audiences await such assurances.
Perhaps it is time for the Obama Administration to come forward with its own proposal for reforming, consolidating and streamlining U.S. International Broadcasting, preferably under the leadership of a newly-invigorated Voice of America.
Alex Belida and Sonja Pace are former senior news executives and foreign correspondents with VOA. Both served as heads of VOA language program services and as managing editor of the VOA Central Newsroom.