BBG Watch Commentary
The announcement of massive FY2015 cuts to foreign language news programs for overseas audiences and triumphant Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) press release in the midst of potential large job losses and loss of audience and U.S. influence abroad are drawing ire from Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and other BBG entity employees and their outside supporters, including a former BBG member.
Despite the appointment of new BBG Chairman, Jeff Shell, his statement on the importance of news journalism, and appointment of several new BBG members, International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executive staff proposed and announced on behalf of the board eliminations and major reductions of programs in FY2015. This repeats the pattern of previous years of eliminating programs while preserving most of IBB’s executive, bureaucratic and support positions.
Even though a cut is also proposed for IBB in FY2015, it still remains the largest entity within the BBG with 34% of the budget. IBB positions have grown 37% in the last seven years at the expense of numerous eliminated and reduced programs. Employees and outside supporters note that the same scenario is being played out this year even though Chairman Shell and new board members promised reforms and recently appointed a new interim IBB management team. Some suspect that the FY2015 budget request is based in large part on input from former IBB management members.
Outside experts contacted by BBG Watch have concluded that nothing short of the elimination of IBB or its removal from control over the BBG budget planning process can reverse the pattern of bureaucratic growth at the expense of programs.
IBB-prepared FY2015 budget request calls for elimination of RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq and the Balkan Service, reduction of RFE/RL Armenian Service and radio transmission to Belarus, elimination of VOA Albanian, Bosnian, Macedonian, and Serbian Services, reductions of VOA Persian, Latin American, Indonesian, Georgian, Uzbek and Azerbaijani services.
VOA Central Newsroom, which has been unable to reliably post timely news reports on news developments in Ukraine and U.S. reactions to them, will see a further reduction of unfilled positions, VOA Jerusalem and Huston bureaus will be closed. The IBB budget request further de-emphasizes news reporting and news programs in favor of non-journalistic activities, such as teaching English, even though the VOA Charter, which has been largely ignored in recent years by VOA and IBB executives, puts a clear emphasis on news. The Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) may also see a cut in positions.
BBG Watch has contacted former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member, Ambassador Victor Ashe, who gave us his reaction to the BBG’s fiscal year 2015 budget request. Ashe is a former BBG board member and former U.S. Ambassador to Poland from 2004 to 2009.
Ashe also serves on the Advisory Board of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), an independent NGO which supports U.S. international media outreach and its journalists.
In previous years, CUSIB successfully fought against several IBB program cutting proposals. CUSIB members had meetings with BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and other BBG Governors and discussed with them concerns over IBB and VOA management practices and budget planning process.
VICTOR ASHE: “The recent news release by BBG public relations staff praising their budget which Congress has not adopted smacks of fantasyland. It speaks of being ‘nimble’ and ‘streamlined’, but no substantive mention is made of Ukraine or other former Soviet republics except for a caption under an image and a reference to reducing radio transmissions to Belarus.”
“Nothing is mentioned about the plight of contract employees and how BBG plans to handle this multi-million dollar cost for mistreating their own employees as outlined by a recent OIG study,” Ashe said.
“Morale at this agency continues to be rock bottom. VOA continues to miss major developing news stories while Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) excells. The recent head of RFE/RL has resigned and despite the crisis in Ukraine, a new head has not been chosen,” Victor Ashe stated.
“This news release tops the list in ignoring the problems and highlighting fiction,” Ashe added. “A return to fact in public relations would be a good start.”
Many current and former Voice of America employees are also appalled by the wording and tone of the BBG press release, which nearly completely ignores the issue of loss of programs, loss of U.S. influence abroad, and loss of jobs by outstanding journalists while United States International Media entity becomes more and more bureaucratic year after year.
IBB remains a BBG entity with the largest budget (34%) despite also taking a cut. BBG Watch has learned, however, that IBB will be making some new investments at VOA.
BBG put in a $10.16 million digital investment which focuses on three categories: a) funding new digital content/technology teams (combined) in the language services, b) a new digital affiliates program to help USIM content get out onto existing and new affiliates’ digital platforms (including English content) and c) funding to support content producers to experiment, but also support new content formats (for instance, radio for mobile devices).
BBG Watch has learned that the bulk of the funding – around $7 million – is for teams in targeted services: Russia, Middle East, South East Asia. While this is an “unfunded mandate”, it is being funded out of the IBB budget, rather than other content services. About $2.8 million is directly going to VOA’s bottom line, sources told BBG Watch.
This may be a small change compared to previous years, probably attributable to the new management team, but it hardly compensates for losses of multiple programs, de-emphasis of news journalism, and loss of experienced journalists. These moves, even if well-intentioned, also further remove decision-making from actual program producers and place them in the hands of bureaucrats, most of whom are blamed for making the agency “defunct,” to use a term former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used to describe U.S. international media outreach during the last decade of IBB executives’ rule.
IBB’s control over the budget should be eliminated, its human and other resources divided, and IBB should be abolished in the interest of making U.S. international media outreach effective and in the interest of strengthening rather than weakening U.S. security and U.S. image and public diplomacy abroad. We refer here to fluff journalism pushed by IBB strategic planners and VOA executives, such as the one showing a blood-thirty zombie Uncle Sam character attacking a Pakistani in a promotional video for Pakistan.
As the ranks of IBB and VOA executives and senior advisors keep growing and the number of experienced VOA journalists shrinks every year, examples such as the VOA Pakistani video multiply. There is nothing to suggest in the FY2015 budget request narrative that these executives are offering any kind of leadership, vision or any kind of hope to VOA program producers or VOA audiences overseas despite the triumphant tone of the BBG press release.
BBG PRESS RELEASE
MARCH 25, 2014
WASHINGTON (March 25, 2014) – The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) today released its detailed Fiscal Year 2015 budget request. The agency, which oversees civilian international news and information programs for people in more than 100 countries, is seeking $721.26 million to meet strategic priorities, migrating to media that its listeners and viewers increasingly use, and innovating to reach next-generation audiences.
“Our objective is to position U.S. international media to be more nimble, to adapt our excellent programs to the technologies that audiences prefer, and to tap every avenue for efficiencies,” said BBG Chairman Jeffrey Shell. “Our commitment to this agency’s journalistic mission is unwavering even in the face of limited resources and a volatile international operating environment.”
In accordance with U.S. foreign policy needs, the BBG has proposed investments of just over $24 million to expand journalism and content distribution efforts for audiences in Africa, East Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as to boost infrastructure and expand popular English language lesson programs.
In Africa, the investment request is for $8 million. Building on the agency’s response to the crises and diminishing press freedom in the Sahel region, the BBG will enlarge its FM reach, establish a regional satellite television channel, create new video content for affiliate placement and digital distribution, and launch service in the Lingala language for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
With a $5 million investment in Asia, the BBG will expand youth-oriented video and digital initiatives for Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The BBG will also boost its digital engagement efforts in China, including building its use of social media platforms and Internet anti-censorship.
Spanning multiple broadcast regions, the FY 2015 budget request seeks $10.15 million to invest in digital infrastructure and provide mobile-friendly journalism while increasing the availability of online learning English programs with a budgetary boost of $900,000.
The BBG will continue its growing and successful Internet anti-censorship efforts in FY 2015 with $12.5 million in funds.
By reducing administrative operations, eliminating needless language service overlap, streamlining central news operations, optimizing information technology and reducing ineffective transmissions, the agency would save about $32.9 million under this budget request. Such reductions will be taken in order to sustain core journalistic operations.
As online and mobile media grow, along with distribution through more local affiliate partnerships, the request proposes migrating from use of legacy radio transmissions that are not a primary source of news for markets in Vietnam, Belarus, Laos, and elsewhere.
Further information regarding the BBG’s FY 2015 budget submission can be found here in the Fiscal Year 2015 Congressional Budget Request.
END BBG PRESS RELEASE
BBG Watch-Modified Chart Showing True Size of IBB’s Budget