BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Governor Matthew Armstrong
BBG Governor Matthew Armstrong

Speaking at the Deutsche Welle (DW) Global Media Forum in Bonn last week in a discussion about striking a balance between preserving civic freedom, state security and personal privacy, Matthew Armstrong, member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), said, according to a DW press release: “You can’t censor the Internet.”

BBG GOVERNOR MATTHEW ARMSTRONG: “You can’t censor the Internet. In fact what we have seen is that when regimes shut down mobile and Internet connectivity – whether it was Iran, Syria or in a dozen other cases – they turn them back on very quietly … because of the collateral damage it causes to the regime.”

Mr. Armstrong also made a comment about radio: “there is means of connecting so that they know that this is what new media, online media does that radio didn’t. Radio — I heard something but I wasn’t able to engage somebody. On the Internet, I can now engage somebody.”

Beijing and other authoritarian regimes have shown that they can easily censor the Internet without shutting it down. Critics of the BBG say that preserving radio transmissions is essential for overcoming Internet censorship and serving information needs of the most poor, most disadvantaged, and most repressed individuals and communities in Asia and throughout the world.

According to Reporters Without Borders, China is the world’s biggest prison for netizens. A Wikipedia article on censorship points out that “China’s Internet censorship is regarded by many as the most pervasive and sophisticated in the world.”

The article also points out that Internet censorship in the PRC has been called “a panopticon that encourages self-censorship through the perception that users are being watched.”

Mr. Armstrong made a number of other statements during the Bonn conference about the threat to the very existence of journalism in countries to which the BBG directs its broadcasts and spoke about dangers faced by journalists working for BBG’s media entities.

Journalists in some of these countries are regularly physically attacked and threatened, sometimes killed, arrested and otherwise intimidated. Mr. Armstrong said that the BBG responds to these threats by supporting anti-censorship and Internet freedom initiatives. He also expressed his and BBG’s strong opposition to the Internet sovereignty concept promoted by countries like Russia and China to justify strict national regulation of the Internet. His other comments appeared to have undermined somewhat his assertion that the Internet cannot be censored.

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Mr. Armstrong starts speaking at at about 19 min. into the recording and makes additional comments at approximately 37 min.

BBG GOVERNOR MATTHEW ARMSTRONG: “How do you empower these people? Well, you provide them with access to news and information, whether it’s radio-like activities or journalism training, or how do you run a media operation in Afgahnistan, or our Open Technology Fund, where you can get privacy tools. Or it’s just radio. In Democratic Republic of Congo we do radio to try to help the refugees understand what’s going on.

So, information is part, is only part of the solution, but you need to help the people to understand what is the reality, that there is another alternative, a different alternative, and there is means of connecting so that they know that this is what new media, online media does that radio didn’t. Radio — I heard something but I wasn’t able to engage somebody. On the Internet, I can now engage somebody [Emphasis added.], find out through the privacy tools and all this, I can find out, oh hey, I have other people that think like me. And then you can start to band together.”

Vaclav Havel would not doubt strongly disagree with the assertion that radio does not provide for easy audience engagement. He had helped to initiate powerful social and political movements for human rights, Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution, based on common listenership to radio, primarily Radio Free Europe, but also Voice of America and BBC. Dissidents and human rights activists in other countries, including Russia and China, reported similar experiences. Some, like Chinese human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng, were even able to listen to hidden radios in prison camps, and some most likely still do.

Experts point out that engagement does not automatically happen on radio, on television or on the Internet; it happens usually among a small group of highly-determined and brave individuals after they use radio, television, or the Internet.

Individuals will use whatever media tool they have, whatever is easier for them to use, whatever is not censored or monitored, whatever they can afford, and whatever they prefer. Authoritarian rulers like Russia’s President Putin know that television, and even radio, are more powerful tools for influencing public opinion than the Internet. They may allow some Internet freedom, but will clamp down hard on independent TV and radio and make sure that they tightly control the main TV and radio channels. They fear foreign broadcasts.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on Wenceslas Square in Prague in December 1989 because they found out about it through Radio Free Europe and Voice of America radio broadcasts. That’s how the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended — through massive engagement thanks largely to Western radios and some television, but still without the Internet.

Experts also point out that the Internet and social media may sometimes inhibit social activity because some individuals assume that online interaction represents action. But the Internet is certainly a very powerful tool for exchanging information provided it is not censored. Individuals must also have access to it, afford to use it and not be afraid to use it for what many governments would consider as illegal and punishable anti-regime activities.

Radio, including shortwave radio, reaches the poorest and the most fearful around the world. According to World Bank, at least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. Rural areas account for three in every four people living on less than US$1 a day and a similar share of the world population is suffering from malnutrition.

Not only in Africa, but in many other parts of the world, radio plays an important role, but IBB has been cutting both radio and shortwave transmissions in recent years, even though the U.S. Congress and U.S. taxpayers would presumably rather help these disadvantaged groups with uncensored information than people with iPhones, iPads, and broadband Internet access, as well as access to Internet censorship circumvention tools.

There is also the question whether cutting radio to the most vulnerable groups to achieve savings is the right way to proceed for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and whether it would not be more fair and wiser to cut the enormous government bureaucracy of the IBB while preserving radio broadcasts and expanding them to countries like Russia and China. It does not have to be the choice between radio and the Internet. It is only presented as the choice by the BBG’s bureaucracy.

An internal BBG document points out that China can easily block Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and other news websites deemed undesirable without damaging China’s Internet connectivity.

Chinese cyber police also monitor Internet use by citizens. Not too many of them are capable of using anti-censorship Internet tools, but a few do. Radio is a hands-free, eyes-free, surveillance-free, low-cost medium. Satellite television is much more expensive and satellite dishes in some areas can attract attention of local authorities.

“U.S. International broadcasters are among the most tightly censored media outlets in China. VOA and RFA radio broadcasts are intensively jammed and both broadcasters’ websites are blocked in China [Emphasis added]. Such restrictions present serious obstacles to those in China attempting to access VOA and RFA content.”

Mr. Armstrong serves as the chair of the Special Committee on the Future of Shortwave Broadcasting.

The BBG has recently cut all Voice of America English shortwave transmissions to China and the rest of Asia but failed to successfully arrange for warning listeners when these cuts were going to happen. VOA program hosts were also caught by surprise. Some complained that they were unable to alert and thank their listeners.

Shortwave radio transmission of VOA and Radio Free Asia (RFA) in Chinese were preserved during the latest round of cuts, but the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) had wanted to eliminate VOA Chinese radio and direct satellite television broadcasts in the past, as well as VOA Tibetan radio broadcasts. They were saved through the intervention of U.S. Congress, but many fear that confident in their ability to deliver news online without censorship of the Internet, BBG/IBB may again try to cut Chinese language radio broadcasts.

The most recent cuts included VOA and RFA shortwave radio broadcasts to a number of other Asian countries without free media, including Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Another internal BBG document says essentially the same thing as other BBG and outside studies: China practices effective albeit selective Internet censorship.

As elsewhere in China, Facebook and Twitter are blocked [Emphasis added.], but domestic sites such as Sina Weibo and QQ provide forums for discourse on sensitive issues.

Mr. Armstrong’s presentation in Bonn confirmed BBG/IBB’s strong faith that “You can’t censor the Internet” and that anti-censorship and Internet freedom initiatives will help to solve any existing problems.

Powerful points against intimidation of journalists, censorship and self-censorship worldwide, but with a strong focus on the U.S., were made at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn by other participants. Ironically, some BBG/IBB officials, whose job it it to support free media abroad, are extremely sensitive when they are being criticized by ordinary American citizens, NGOs and journalists, as well as members of Congress of both parties who want to reform the U.S. international media agency through their bipartisan bill, H.R. 4490.

“We need media that covers power and doesn’t cover for power,” said U.S. journalist Amy Goodman in a Deutsche Welle discussion last week on political opinion-making in the digital age.

Discussing the proper role of journalism in covering topics such as war and political crises, co-founder of the independent news program, Democracy Now!, Goodman, said:

U.S. JOURNALIST AND CO_FOUNDER OF DEMOCRACY NOW! AMY GOODMAN: “I really do think that the media can be the greatest force for peace on Earth. Instead it is all too often wielded as a weapon of war.”These are critical times in the U.S., says Goodman, “when whistleblowers are under attack, when journalists who are supposed to be there to ensure the functioning of a democratic society, are very much under siege.” She stated that under the Obama Administration, “More whistleblowers have been prosecuted than in all the presidencies combined of the past.”

READ MORE: The Internet is the new global superpower, Deutsche Welle (DW) Press Release, July 7, 2014

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