BBG Watch Commentary

Article by former Voice of America (VOA) journalist Gary Thomas in Columbia Journalism Review on journalistic practices at VOA and management of U.S. international broadcasting within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials included today in BBG Media Highlights a Columbia Journalism Review article by a former Voice of America (VOA) senior correspondent which was missing from yesterday’s Highlights. The article, written by Gary Thomas, was critical of VOA and IBB management.

It is not clear whether IBB managers or IBB employees preparing the Highlights omitted the article yesterday on purpose. An unofficial explanation BBG Watch received through our sources was that employees preparing the Highlights did not find the article even though it was available online for many hours before the Highlights were sent out and IBB managers knew that the Columbia Journalism Review article was going to be published.

In the past, IBB officials regularly censored out from BBG Media Highlights articles critical of their performance. Censored articles included those in mainstream media, such as those appearing in major newspapers, as well as articles in blogs and online only media publications. Blogs critical of the agency’s management, including those of The Heritage Foundation and World Affairs Journal, were usually banned, but articles from blogs showing the agency in a positive light were included.

According to our sources within IBB, some BBG members protested to IBB executive staff that such censorship is unworthy of an agency that champions freedom of the press. According to our agency sources, IBB officials came up with various explanations that kept changing over time. As of late, some critical articles are being included in the Highlights, but still many are not.

In a Soviet-style practice, IBB officials put some critical articles — but not all — in a special emails sent out to BBG members only but not shared with American and world public in the Highlights. Government officials in charge of getting the truth out, were in the business of suppressing it. This practice was very similar to how Soviet Politburo members received uncomfortable news in secret transcripts of Radio Liberty and Voice of America programs during the Cold War.

IBB officials could have had reasons for ignoring the Columbia Journalism Review article if indeed they did it on purpose. July 1 was the day on which they planned to unveil their announcement that from now on they can legally distribute Voice of America and Radio and TV Marti news and other programs to Americans. They led with this story in their Media Highlights and issued a separate press release. Including Gary Thomas’ article, which argues that VOA and IBB managers have largely destroyed Voice of America’s ability to deliver hard news in a timely fashion, would put a question mark over their announcement.

Another reason for ignoring the article was inclusion in it of a highly dismissive and arrogant response from the Voice of America Public Affairs Office. It not only accused Thomas, a journalist with over 30 years of experience who served and risked his life bringing news from Afghanistan and Pakistan and was VOA’s national security analyst, of being inaccurate and biased, but it also failed to answer any of the questions submitted on his behalf by Columbia Journalism Review editors.

“VOA was offered an opportunity to comment on the issues raised in this article, and questions were submitted to the agency for response. It declined to answer any of the questions. The VOA Public Affairs Office’s response was: ‘Frankly speaking, the questions submitted by Mr. Thomas, a former VOA employee, contain multiple errors and suggest a bias that concerns us greatly. We invite those who want to evaluate the quality of VOA journalism to look at our websites or our programs that reach over 135 million people each week in 45 separate languages’.”

It is widely believed that a Soviet-style response, which many compared to how repressive regimes answer journalists’ questions about human rights, had to be approved by top VOA and perhaps IBB officials. In the past agency officials launched a similarly vicious attack on another former employee, a journalist and manager with an impeccable record at the agency, for publishing critical op-eds in Washington papers. BBG employee union, AFGE Local 1812, leaders point out that this is also typical of how some top IBB and VOA executives treat current employees. These executives have been repeatedly rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys as being some of the worst managers in the federal government. The agency also has the lowest employee morale under IBB management.

At this time, it is not known who at the higher management levels approved the response to Columbia Journalism Review, but BBG Governor Victor Ashe, who was appalled by it, is reportedly asking questions. Ashe told a reporter who called him that he and other BBG members were never consulted on the questions and the response and would have never approved the response that was given if they were. He said that such a response is typical for officials of nondemocratic governments and is unworthy of VOA.

Gary Thomas believes that the response Columbia Journalism Review editors got from the VOA Public Affairs Office had to have been approved at higher management levels.

“According to the relevant editors at Columbia Journalism Review dealing with my piece, this response came from VOA Public Affairs. Whether this response was dictated by higher authorities of VOA management, I do not know. However, from my professional experience, I cannot conceive of such a response to what I hope was a substantive piece on the malaise afflicting BBG/VOA coming from a Public Affairs Officer on his or her own authority.”

An intervention by a BBG member combined with such comments and inquiries may have convinced IBB officials to include the article in today’s BBG Media Highlights. Even though it is one of the most significant analyses of U.S. international broadcasting issues in recent years and was published in one of the most prestigious American journals devoted to media topics, IBB officials put it in the fifth place and a description they gave it reveals nothing about its critical content.

The question to be asked is should Americans trust officials serving them news who defame their own former journalists, try to hide the truth from their superiors and American public, and mistreat their employees and contract journalists? And yet,  even though much of the news coverage has been undermined by inept and oppressive  management, VOA and Radio and TV Marti media professionals still produce some excellent programs that help those who don’t have access to free media and contribute to U.S. national security. These BBG journalists and other employees deserve better treatment and better leadership to be able to serve their overseas audiences without living and working in fear of their own executives.


BBG Media Highlights, July 2, 2013


BBG Media Highlights – July 2, 2013
About Our Broadcasters
US broadcaster says Cambodia reverses radio curbs – AP, July 1, 2013

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. federal agency which oversees Radio Free Asiaand Voice of America, said Cambodia reversed the decision over the weekend. But it called for continued international vigilance about remaining restrictions on media during the elections.

Newport Jazz Festival Immortalized – Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2013
“Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” which premiered at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, is a documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. […] At night, as the crowd keeps warm with cups of coffee, Armstrong makes his appearance, and “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” seems to have reached its peak-what could top him doing “Tiger Rag”? But then the festival’s emcee, “Voice of America” broadcaster Willis Conover, calls for quiet and announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is Sunday, and it is time for the world’s greatest gospel singer, Miss Mahalia Jackson.”

Foreign Radio Is the Mirror of Cambodia That Society Needs – Cambodia Daily, July 2, 2013
Although the government over the weekend reversed the ban, the media blackout would have been a great loss for all sectors of the society, including the public, the media and the government itself. First, professional media like Radio Free AsiaVoice of America and Radio France International serve as the mirror of the government to reflect on its performance so that it can improve itself. The original decision to ban the three international broadcasters from broadcasting on local radio stations is no different from breaking the mirror.

Iranian channels dropped by Intelsat – Asharq Alawsat English, July 2, 2013
In October 2012, the European Union denounced Iran’s “deliberate jamming” of television and radio satellite broadcasts that deprive its citizens of access to free information, and called on Tehran to abide by global telecommunications laws. “Since 2009, repeated waves of jamming have affected the signals of European satellites in the Middle East,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement. “Such jamming, whose origin has been traced to Iran in particular, are hammering the broadcast of international media on Iranian territory.” Among the affected broadcasters were Britain’s BBC Persian, France24, the US-funded Voice of America and Germany’s Deutsche Welle.

Mission Impossible – Columbia Journalism Review, July 1, 2013
VOA‘s journalists have had a clear mandate under the charter, signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976, to present unbiased news to the world, especially to countries denied uncensored news. But the charter also says VOA will “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”

Jennifer Lopez performs in repressive Turkmenistan for Chinese political move –Examiner, July 1, 2013
In May 2013, a journalist was arrested while reporting for United States government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) according to Human Rights Watch, which has documented the injustices that take hold in the country. HRW has referenced Turkmenistan as one of the most repressive countries in the world for people who live there or who report there.
Also mentioned by MSN News

Citations of BBG Broadcasters
China news round-up: Weibos censor reports on HK rallies, Xinjiang separatists fight in Syria – South China Morning Post, July 2, 2013
Radio Free Asia: Chinese authorities confirm police fired at Uygur protesters.U.N. peacekeeping troops take over security of northern Mali – UPI, July 1, 2013
Six thousand West African troops were brought under U.N. command in a ceremony Monday, becoming the third-largest U.N. mission of its kind, the BBC reported. The United Nations approved the mission, known by its French acronym of MINUSMA, to be installed for one year, Voice of America reported. By December, it should reach its full strength with 12,640 uniformed personnel.Tibetan woman journalist Tsering Woeser now lives under house arrest in Beijing, China – Women News Network, July 1, 2013
“Perhaps it’s inappropriate to continue to hope that we will see any change from the new leader of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, on Tibet? I think that a lot of people are hoping for a softer line, or even for something like the ‘positive changes’ we have heard spoken about in diplomatic statements,” said Woeser in an interview broadcast by Radio Free Asia last May (2013).Nelson Mandela’s family feuding over gravesites, ‘angry ancestors’ – Examiner, July 1, 2013
According to Voice of America the issue doesn’t just upset those in the Mandela family, but local elders as well, who claim Nelson Mandela’s illness stems from a ‘curse’ put upon him by unhappy ancestors. Some family members also believe this issue needs to be resolved so that Mandela may achieve peace.Rwanda: Sports Journalists to Face Off in Memorial Match – All Africa, July 2, 2013
The Association of Sports Journalists in Rwanda (AJSPOR) has organised a football match between print and electronic media aimed at remembering their colleagues who were killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi scheduled for today at Ferwafa artificial turf. […] According to one of the event organisers and Voice of America (VOA) sports reporter, Jean-Claude Munyandinda, the one-off match is to “remember and honor our colleagues” that were killed during the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi.”In the foreign-language press:

Alhurra and Radio Sawa debut an online journal called Syria Stories – Aks Alser (Syrian news and information site), July 1, 2013
According to Aks Alser, The Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) takes an intimate look at the humanitarian crisis facing Syria through Syria Stories. This online journal follows six Syrians as they blog about the challenges and triumphs of living in and watching their homeland be torn apart by a civil war. The six individuals come from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds to give readers different perspectives of the Syrian conflict. Some still live in Syria; while others live in refugee camps or neighboring countries.
Also mentioned by HooryaElbashayerAkhbar SahKhabariAlhewar

Ahmed Shafiq says he will return to Egypt in hours – Masr (Egyptian news and information site), July 1, 2013
Masr cited Alhurra for its interview with the former Egyptian prime minister and presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq regarding the current situation in Egypt. Shafiq stated that he has enough support to run for presidency in Egypt.
Also cited by Shorouk NewsElfagrAssabeelMasrawyAlwatan Voice

Closed Kaesong Industrial Complex causes some North Korean businesses to collapse –Nocut News (South Korean News), June 29, 2013
North Koreans who run businesses using employees of the Kaesong Industrial Complex are suffering because of the factory shutdown. “There were many people earning their living by selling things for about 530,000 workers in Kaesong Industrial Complex,” a source in China told Radio Free Asia.

Of Interest
The Most Important Radio Station You’ve Never Heard of Marks 50 Years on the Air –Wired, July 2, 2013

Every night, while millions of Americans are fast asleep, clocks and wristwatches across the country wake up and lock on to a radio signal beamed from the base of the Rocky Mountains. The signal contains a message that keeps the devices on time, helping to make sure their owners keep to their schedules and aren’t late for work the next day. The broadcast comes from WWVB, a station run by the National Institute for Standards and Technology. WWVB marks half a century as the nation’s official time broadcaster on July 5. Together with its sister station, WWV, which is about to hit 90 years in service, NIST radio has been an invisible piece of American infrastructure that has advanced industries from entertainment to telecommunications.

Women at the forefront of investigative journalism in Mexico – Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, June 27, 2013

Nowadays women make up an important part of the media landscape in Mexico. According to the a study by the organization Communication and Information for Women (or CIMAC in Spanish), there are more women journalists in radio and television than men. Women wrote a third of the stories published in Mexico’s three leading national dailies, while men wrote 42% of them (the rest were from news agencies who authors’ gender were not identified). And even though the distribution is still unequal, more and more women are taking up managerial positions. Almost 15% of leadership positions in the country’s media are held by women, like in the case of Carmen Lira, director of La Jornada.

Eutelsat inks satellite capacity deals with RSCC, TricolorTV – telcompaper, July 2, 2013

Satellite operator Eutelsat Communications has extended agreements with Russian Satellite Communications Company (RSCC) for capacity on future RSCC satellites to serve Russia’s market for digital broadcasting and broadband services. Eutelsat has concluded an additional fifteen-year lease with RSCC for nineteen Ku-band transponders on Express-AT1, which is due for launch at the end of this year to 56 degree east. This agreement builds on leases signed in November 2012 for capacity on RSCC satellites to be launched at 140 degree east this year and 36 degree east in 2015. These three orbital positions will together provide full coverage of the Russian Federation enabling RSCC and Eutelsat to expand the digital infrastructure provided to broadcast clients that include NTV+ and TricolorTV.

About Us
The Broadcasting Board of Governors is an independent federal agency supervising all U.S. government-supported, civilian international broadcasting media, whose mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. BBG broadcasts reach an audience of 203 million in more than 100 countries and in 61 languages.  BBG broadcasting organizations include the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).

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