BBG Watch Commentary

We are not saying that local rebroadcasts are always a bad idea, far from it, if they are done right, concluded with the right parties in the right countries, announced the right way, and if there is a good back-up plan. The problem is in how the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives manage and present this project to the outside world, and how their actions affect strategy, news reporting and commitment to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) mission by the Voice of America (VOA) and other BBG-funded and managed broadcasters.

How many times has this scenario been played out: in China, Russia, Indonesia, most recently in Cambodia?  BBG Condemns Foreign Media Ban In Cambodia. Well, here it is again.

BBG Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman signs agreement with the head of Telediffusion de Mauritanie (TDM), Dieh Ould Sidaty.
BBG Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman signs agreement with the head of Telediffusion de Mauritanie (TDM), Dieh Ould Sidaty.

You would think IBB executives would catch on by now, as The Federalist, one of our regular contributors likes to point out.

But they haven’t.  And the reason why is because they have committed themselves and the agency to being in a position of vulnerability to countermeasures by governments who have a world view at odds with that of the IBB, our contributing expert explained.

Another recent BBG press release:

BBG Signs Agreement For Two FM Transmitters In Mauritania, June 24, 2013.

The BBG press release includes a photo of IBB Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman signing agreement with the head of Telediffusion de Mauritanie (TDM), Dieh Ould Sidaty. The press release is dated June 24.

Only two days later, on June 26, Amnesty International issued this report:

Men, women and children tortured to confess to crimes in Mauritania, June 26, 2013.


From Amnesty International

“They made me sit on the ground in a crouch position. They attached one of my hands with my foot with handcuffs and then did the same with my other foot and my other hand. They put a stick under my knees and put the stick between two water containers. That lifted me into the air and my head swung down towards the ground. They started beating my head with their batons. I lost consciousness three times.”

16-year-old boy held at the Brigade des Jeunes, a police post in Mauritania’s capital

“In Mauritania, there’s a terrifying pattern of abuse when it comes to terrorism-related cases: individuals are arrested, prevented from speaking to a lawyer, tortured into confessing to a crime and taken to short and summary trials where confessions are used as the main evidence. How can that be called justice?.”

Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada English Branch.


The official language of Mauritania is Arabic. BBG’s Radio Sawa broadcasts in Arabic. French and English are also spoken among the political and intellectual elites, and among many educated young Mauritanians. Radio Sawa is best known for its music programs, less for its news. We could not check its website for reports on torture, slavery and other human rights abuses in Mauritania. Music, even Western, is not likely to offend government officials practicing or condoning torture.

We should all rejoice if Radio Sawa and VOA would include news reports about torture in programs that might be rebroadcast on FM in Mauritania. But would they?

What did Voice of America report on its French and English websites on the most recent Amnesty Internatinal report on Mauritania?

We did a search of the Voice of America English website for such words as “Mauritania,” “Amnesty International,” “torture,” “human rights.” Nothing – no recent reports relating to torture, other human rights abuses or government corruption in Mauritania.

We also did a search of the Voice of America French to Africa website, La Voix de l’Amérique, for such words as “Mauritanie,” “Amnesty International,” “la torture,” “droits de l’homme.” Again – nothing – no recent reports relating to torture, other human rights abuses or government corruption in Mauritania.

President Obama is currently in Africa, June 27 – July 2, visiting Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. The White House issued FACT SHEET: U.S. Support for Strengthening Democratic Institutions, Rule of Law, and Human Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Continuing slavery, slavery-related practices, and trafficking in persons were central human rights problems” in Mauritania, as are prison conditions. The U.S. State Department

Why hasn’t Voice of America been reporting on human rights abuses in Mauritania? Was someone told not to report because of IBB’s negotiations with the government of Mauritania on FM rebroadcasting? Do VOA journalists practice self-censorship knowing that IBB controls their future? Don’t they care about human rights in Mauritania? Was their capacity to report such news completely destroyed by IBB bureaucrats?

What do victims of torture and their relatives in Mauritania think about BBG signing agreements with the government whose officials engage in torture and other human rights abuses? What do they think when they go to VOA websites and do not find any news about recent Amnesty International reports on torture in their country?

Assuming FM rebroadcasts start in Mauritania, can IBB claim an audience increase, as they always like to do, if human rights reporting is not included? Perhaps IBB should claim only those among the audience whose human rights have not been abused yet by government officials and functionaries.

The State Department human rights report describes Mauritania as “a highly centralized Islamic republic with a president as head of state governing under a constitution based on a combination of French civil and Sharia law.”

The report goes on to say: “reported human rights problems included: use of torture by police to extract confessions; other abusive treatment, arbitrary arrests, lengthy pretrial detention; government influence over the judiciary; limits on freedom of the press and assembly; restrictions on religious freedom for non-Muslims; corruption; discrimination against women; female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); child marriage; political marginalization of southern-based ethnic groups; racial and ethnic discrimination; child labor; and inadequate enforcement of labor laws.”

If VOA is not reporting on these issues in Mauritania, what good is local FM rebroadcasting? The latest La Voix de l’Amérique / VOA French to Africa search results for “Mauritanie” and “la torture” are from 2008.

Should Voice of America start reporting on Amnesty International statements on Mauritania and cover government corruption and press censorship in that country, how long will it take for the government of Mauritania to shut down or put restrictions on VOA’s FM rebroadcasts?

It may indeed be better for VOA not to cover Amnesty International human rights reports and other such “delicate” issues in the first place if IBB wants these FM rebroadcasts in Mauritania to continue. What do you think will happen in Mauritania, knowing what happened in Russia, Indenesia and Cambodia?

Human rights news reporting and human rights news broadcasting do not go well in most cases with human rights news reporting.

What has the International Broadcasting Bureau’s strategy been on this issue:

1. Propose elimination of radio and television broadcasts that cannot be easily placed locally (VOA Russian radio, VOA Russian television, VOA Chinese radio, VOA Chinese television, VOA Tibetan radio, etc.)

2. Actually eliminate some of these programs.

3. Get rid of experienced journalists who specialize in human rights reporting (VOA Russian Service, RFE/RL Radio Liberty Russian Service, RFE/RL Radio Liberty Kazakh Service, etc.) Use sexually suggestive videos instead to attract a younger audience in Kazakhstan.

4. Use commercial world consultants and commercial world research showing that most people living under repressive governments actually dislike human rights news reporting and use this research to justify firing journalists and canceling their programs.

5. Threaten broadcasters that unless they increase their audience through local rebroadcasting, their programs will end and their jobs will be terminated.

How does this International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) strategy fit in with what happened and what is happening in Russia, China, Tibet, Cambodia and Mauritania?

Why would an independent Russian scholar, who by the way was hired by IBB executives working for the Broadcasting Board of Governors to do a study, conclude that after IBB’s reorganization of the Voice of America Russian Service, forcing out of experienced journalists and the elimination of its direct radio and satellite TV programs, VOA Russian website had a “pro-Putin bias“?

Why were dozens of experienced Radio Liberty Russian journalists who specialized in human rights reporting fired without any warning? (Some of them were hired back after some BBG Governors realized that IBB was covering up the management crisis at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.)

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Speaking last Wednesday at the conclusion of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), convened by the Committee Chairman, Rep Ed Royce (R-CA), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) called for replacing the agency’s management in charge of international broadcasts and other news programs. She said that managers who do not understand what U.S. international broadcasting mission is should be changed. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen read the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ mission statement which says that the agency’s purpose is “To inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” She put emphasis on “support for freedom and democracy.”

“And I again remind our witnesses, our audience, and members that the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is: Quote. ‘To inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.’ End Quote. This is broadcast for freedom and democracy. If you think that this is an impartial broadcasting, then you’re not fulfilling your mission because you are supposed to stand for freedom and democracy. That is the direction, that is what the BBG is supposed to do.

We don’t have to change the mission, we have to change the folks in charge of the programing who don’t have any idea what their mission is.

So, this is an important mission, it’s of great interest to this committee.

Support for freedom and democracy. Amen.”

Earlier during the hearing, Rep. Eliot Engel (D – NY) noted the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveys showing that the management of U.S. international broadcasting, which is centered at the International Broadcasting Bureau, is rated as being among the worst in the entire federal government.

Let’s rebroadcast Radio Sawa and VOA programs on FM in Mauritania, but let’s also change the folks change the folks in charge of the programing and in charge of strategic planning and program placement who don’t have any idea what their mission is

The problem is not any more BBG Governors (the current group is outstanding after some of the absentee ones and IBB-enablers had left; Victor Ashe, Susan McCue, Michael Meehan and the outgoing Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine have saved Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty from disaster and are trying to change IBB bureaucracy). The problem is the top leadership of the International Broadcasting Bureau, and as Rep. Royce pointed out several times, also the entire structure of U.S. international broadcasting and its agency.

Rep. Royce said: “It is time for broad reforms; ‘tinkering’ and ‘band-aid’ solutions are not an option, because the stakes are too great.”

We completely agree. May we respectfully suggest to start with the leadership and bureaucracy of the International Broadcasting Bureau.

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