International Broadcasting Bureau – Information War Lost – Dysfunctional, Defunct and Conflicted – Supporting Freedom and Democracy? What Kind?
by The Federalist
The government of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt has been deposed.
So, let’s get this right:
Mr. Morsi, he won the vote,
But now he’s been overthrown by military revolt.
So, there’s dancing in the streets of Cairo.
There is “democracy and freedom.”
Not so fast.
Remember what John Kerry said while a US Senator when people started getting themselves wrapped around this “Arab Spring” thing:
“It’s too early to be doing a victory lap for democracy in the Middle East.”
True then. Truer now.
What the Egyptian people and the Egyptian military do is up to them. The fate of their country is in their hands. But clearly, there is an arduous task ahead. Even now, rival factions are battling in the streets and casualties are mounting.
[Note: 1 journalist dead. 1 journalist raped. More than 50 protesters dead just last night. So far.]
For all you kumbaya folks out there, still desperately believing in that “Arab Spring” nonsense, here is the reality. The Middle East is in revolt. Large segments of that revolt have resulted in civil war, enormous bloodshed, displaced populations, anarchy and violence.
In our view this has less to do with “freedom and democracy” and more to do with opposite ideologies battling to hold onto or gain power: one order changing places with another.
It’s been part of the human experience for thousands of years.
How has the United States Government responded to developments in Egypt?
Among other things:
According to The Washington Times and wire service reports,
President Obama asked the Egyptian military,
“to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters.”
Well, that didn’t happen. Morsi and key supporters are under house arrest or are otherwise being detained.
“Mr. Obama called on all sides to avoid violence and on the military to protect the rights of all Egyptians.”
That’s not exactly happening either, as pro- and anti-Morsi factions are battling it out, with Egyptian security forces opening fire on protestors and members of the different factions killing each other.
And there’s more bad news. Again, The Washington Times and wire service reports:
“…Egypt faces a legally required cutoff in US aid because of a military overthrow of a democratically elected government.”
No doubt, the US Government will try to parse the circumstances and maintain the flow of aid to the Egyptian military. That would void the congressional legislation, set a precedent and put the United States back on a track to decide which military revolts are “good” and which are “bad.”
The act of overthrowing the Morsi government also has negative implications for US Government international broadcasting.
Late in June, we heard references to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) mission statement that it is “in support of freedom and democracy.” They came mostly from well-meaning individuals.
This whole debate would not be necessary if officials of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) did not make such a mess of U.S. international broadcasting. But since they did, it may behoove Congress and the administration to take a step back and think about whether they mean “democracy” that guarantees and protects human rights or “democracy,” as representing the “will of the majority”? Such an outcome can even be achieved through more or less free popular vote. But what if it results in a leader or a government that supports severe restrictions on human rights and even condones terrorist attacks against innocent people, because such a “democracy” can and has been created in some countries.
“Supporting freedom and democracy” is in any case a desired outcome. It also constitutes advocacy of that one, particular outcome, however it is defined. Who will decide what kind of “democracy” is worth supporting and where? We certainly do not want IBB officials to make these decisions.
Because of this uncertainty and risks, and for practical reasons of journalistic credibility abroad, this is not the mission of the Voice of America (VOA), which has a Congressional Charter that articulates what that mission is.
Surrogate broadcasters have their own missions, some of them defined in legislation passed by Congress. Those missions may be appropriate to particular situations and countries where local journalists are killed, persecuted, censored or exiled, democratic politicians, intellectuals and artists are imprisoned. Russia and China, Radio Liberty of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), immediately come to mind.
The United States and American taxpayers in their generosity and in furthering U.S. national security interests wants to help these journalists, oppressed people and repressed civil society of some of these countries by funding surrogate broadcasting and other media outreach programs. That is distinctly different from the mission of the Voice of America, which — while providing both international and American news like any other news organization — has its own American Charter which states that one of VOA’s primary jobs is to reflect America to the world.
VOA can and should report on events in other countries and supplement such reports with relevant comments from Americans of all political persuasions and from U.S. government officials, but ultimately Voice of America cannot function as independent surrogate local media. In that case, it would not be called Voice of America but Voice of Journalists/Politicians/Dissidents from Russia, China and any other country that persecutes democratic leaders and practices censorship. Such media outlets already exist. Some of the most effective are funded by BBG to function exactly how Congress wants them to function, as independent surrogate media.
Congressional lawmakers need to get a grip on reality and recognize that the VOA Charter is the one and only proper course for the Voice of America and not the attempts by the International Broadcasting Bureau to undermine that mission with sloganeering to be able to do anything they want. It gives the unmistakable impression that US Government international broadcasting is the domain for amateurs and dilettantes at IBB.
In our view, the impression has become a fact.
More Bad News
Going back to 2001, US Government international broadcasting has spent millions in American taxpayer money on broadcasting to the Arab and Muslim world – from North Africa to Indonesia.
The leading effort was the creation of Radio Sawa to be followed by Alhurra television, both broadcasting in Arabic. The problem is that they are neither surrogate broadcasters and other media outlets nor American media outlets. They lack a clear identity and purpose.
The idea behind Radio Sawa was to adopt a format heavily infused with pop music. The thinking being that if we bombard Arab youth with pop music, they will love us and adopt the American world view.
Arab youth aren’t stupid. They know that what happens outside their front door is more important than a demeaning format ploy from Washington. The format is demeaning because the idea behind it trivializes the level of anger and frustration rampant among Arab populations.
[Someone forgot to take note of who is doing the bulk of the fighting in the Middle East.]
Radio Sawa was followed by Alhurra (“The Free One”) television. Alhurra – with a herd of rider-less horses running across the television screen going where no one knows.
[You really need someone to get on those ponies and ride to arrive at a destination. Otherwise, the direction is aimless.]
Twelve long years into this experiment and the United States is in a worse position than it was when these stations began broadcasting. Whatever window of opportunity may have existed to make an effective point in the Arab and Muslim world has been slammed shut by developments on the ground (one American ambassador killed in Libya, the US embassy in Cairo now sending non-essential personnel out of the country in the wake of the Morsi government being overthrown, Egypt’s tourist economy collapsed).
In addition, these stations are taking a body slam from regional Arab media, including Al-Jazeera television which is well along in establishing and maintaining a global presence.
Simply put: game over. We are going through the motions of trying to look relevant. We’re not.
Let’s add to the pile of rubble the operations of the Voice of America’s Persian News Network (PNN). That’s a bust, too. Part of the reason is that it is also aimed in one direction (regime change in Iran) and beset by more than its share of factionalism and clueless management. Again, PNN has no clear identity. It’s neither Voice of America nor a surrogate broadcaster.
BBG members and members of Congress should also ask themselves this question, how can Alhurra, Radio Sawa or PNN function as successful surrogate media — assuming that they might want to be surrogate media — if they are based in Washington, DC?
Voice of America can successfully operate from Washington with correspondents based abroad, but Alhurra and Radio Sawa can’t if they want to be successful. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were kept as close to the target area and as far away from Washington for a good reason. The problem again is that Alhurra and Sawa don’t know what they are. Voice of America does not have these identity problems, but it has been decimated by IBB bureaucrats, its news gathering operation nearly destroyed to pay for “social media engagement” that cannot happen because there is no timely, comprehensive and interesting news content.
And then we go marching off to Pakistan and Indonesia: Pakistan ever the hotbed of jihadist fervor and Indonesia, the VOA champion for skewed research (and its news programs are blocked).
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a problem. A big problem. A systemic problem.
Is there a solution?
The prospect of such is not looking very good at the moment.
Starting with the agency and moving onto the Congress and the White House, too many people have no idea what to do with the place to get it back on track. Lack of consensus on a solution means dim prospects for the future.
And in typical fashion, the agency is careening like a drunken sailor banging about and causing one problem after another while someone tries to figure out the answer to: what’s next?
As things stand where they are right now, the agency has crossed one too many thresholds with the result that its audiences are insignificant , it has no impactful resonance in China, Russia and Iran (in strategic terms, the game-changer countries of the 21st century) and is being directed by an odious IBB bureaucracy regaling in vicious, insubordinate behavior directed toward the BBG.
The vicious and public attempt at character assassination directed by the IBB against members of the BBG may be the act that has sealed the agency’s fate. That kind of irrational, crazed behavior sets a precedent that no agency head anywhere in government wants to see repeated or directed against them. The agency has an earned and cemented reputation for being the worst place to work in the Federal Government. This behavior is the ultimate expression of what that means. And it’s being acted out by a group of individuals at high levels of the General Schedule and the Senior Executive Service pay grades with fat six-figure salaries. A “rogue” approach to administration at any level of governance is unacceptable.
When an agency goes into “defunct” mode, rehabilitative solutions are elusive. Generally, “defunct” means being in a state beyond what is salvageable. That puts the focus on alternatives.
The most likely is to transfer the functions of the agency and its employees (not the IBB) to elsewhere in the government where their skills and expertise may be put to good use. This may require “interim” solutions, hopefully in environments with a culture other than that promoted by the IBB.
In the past, we have suggested making the broadcasting entities part of the Armed Forces Network (AFN), especially to annoy those who would rather leave them in the hands of IBB executives. This has usually sparked a lively debate, but the question that always comes up is where else in government is there an organization with some form of broadcasting mission and expertise?
This does not mean wholesale changeover. Something has to be done with Radio Sawa, Alhurra television and PNN. They are not working and there must be a departure from the current paradigm.
One argument is to return them to the fold of the Federal Service, reconstituting a VOA Arabic Service and Farsi Service to Iran.
This may prompt some chortling in the region, but what needs to be done is get a grip on reality and developing credibility where now there is very little.
[The truth of the matter is that probably no one wants any part of the mess created by the IBB.]
Any way you look at it, the prospects aren’t altogether hopeful. But we are at the point of making a choice: close down the agency completely or reconstitute US Government international broadcasting from the debris field created by the IBB.