BBG Watch Commentary
In a well-written Letter to the Editor, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Jeff Shell responded to a Washington Post editorial which urged the BBG to do more to counter Internet censorship by China.
Mr. Shell pointed out that the BBG already has in place Internet freedom programs but also noted that funding for them is still limited.
In the editorial, “China’s strong-arm tactics toward U.S. media merit a response,” The Washington Post wrote:
“Congress ought to urge the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors to allocate more funds for technology to help Chinese people circumvent the massive firewall, as a coalition of human rights and religious freedom groups recently suggested.”
Mr. Shell described the agency’s core mission as “supporting audiences in more than 100 countries who strive for the freedom to watch, listen and participate in the global online community.” He pointed out that this makes the BBG different from other agencies and commercial media. “And it’s why the Chinese and other governments do all they can to stand in our way,” BBG Chairman Jeff Shell concluded.
Provided Jeff Shell, who is new to his government job, carries out his promise of reforming the top management of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) together with its bloated bureaucracy, and also manages to reform the news operation at the Voice of America (VOA), his Letter to the Editor is an encouraging sign.
In his letter, Mr. Shell also wrote: “We continuously look for budgetary savings to carry out our core mission.” Let’s hope Mr. Shell and the new BBG board he leads, will not look to the discredited managers to propose these savings, but instead BBG members will seek advice from outside experts and propose their own solutions.
Over the years, IBB executives eliminated numerous programs and programming positions while expanding their own ranks. This, plus a deeply flawed strategic plan, explain more than anything else former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments to a congressional committee that the agency has become “defunct” in fulfilling its mission of communicating with audiences abroad and for VOA in telling America’s story. She pointed out that the agency has especially failed in the international broadcasting arena and has been completely overtaken by such foreign media outfits as Al Jazeera, RT (Russia Today), and China’s CCTV.
A major part of the problem has been IBB’s strategic planning and the neglect of the news gathering operations, especially at the Voice of America. The BBG cannot compete in digital media without outstanding news content that now only some of its surrogate broadcasters and very few VOA foreign language services are able to provide. The flagship broadcaster, the Voice of America, is no longer capable of delivering online timely and comprehensive news. It is time to bring money back from the IBB bureaucracy to BBG’s media entities and their journalists. Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) are already doing a lot to improve Internet freedom and could do much more with more money. We have observed, on the other hand, that IBB executives spent a lot of time on international travel at taxpayers’ expense.
If the BBG undertakes serious management reforms, the Congress should reward such moves by giving more money for its Internet freedom programs and its worldwide broadcasting operations as well. U.S. international media outreach is a critical national security resource and desperately needs more funding. But the BBG must make sure that any new money from Congress and U.S. taxpayers is not wasted by its so far un-reformable IBB bureaucracy.
We wish Mr. Shell success in reforming the agency.
From BBG Chairman:
Regarding the Dec. 9 editorial “The China vise”:
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has played a lead role in expanding Internet freedom in China, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and other societies that censor the media, and we agree with The Post’s editorial board that much more needs to be done.
The BBG promotes the free flow of information across borders with objective reporting, journalism training and multimedia content distribution through five networks. This includes an active Internet freedom program for places where authorities devote tremendous resources to choking off access to the Web.
Since 2010, the BBG has grown its Internet anti-censorship programs from a modest $1.6 million to $9.1 million with the help of supporters in the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill, and we are in a very strong position to continue this trajectory with additional funds. Still, given what we’re up against overseas, this is far from enough. Our budget proposal currently before Congress includes $12.5 million for Internet-freedom work; it would help us continue to deploy emerging technologies, provide more secure access for people in closed societies and foster partnerships with cutting-edge experts, developers and like-minded funders.
We continuously look for budgetary savings to carry out our core mission of supporting audiences in more than 100 countries who strive for the freedom to watch, listen and participate in the global online community. It’s what makes the BBG different from other agencies and commercial media. And it’s why the Chinese and other governments do all they can to stand in our way.
Jeff Shell, Washington
The writer is the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.