BBG Watch Commentary

The American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812, has revealed new shocking information about news censorship and inadequate editing of news reports at the taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) which serves information needs of foreign audiences worldwide. “It is just a matter of time before one of these [VOA] stories is shown to be neither accurate nor objective and perhaps even detrimental to U.S. national interests,” AFGE Local 1812 warned.

AFGE Local 1812, which represents many federal employees at the Voice of America and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), reported that the agency’s top management as part of its “affiliate placement strategy,” is forcing VOA journalists to pre-censor some VOA content for international audiences in order “not to offend the national government, the audience, the station or the advertisers” in countries where VOA programs are placed on local stations, often at considerable airtime leasing costs charged to U.S. taxpayers.

BBG officials in many cases use public funds to pay for such rebroadcasts. When such rebroadcasts include pre-censored news content to allay political objections and fears of foreign governments and stations, it is believed to be a clear violation of the VOA Charter, the U.S. law governing VOA operations. The first provision of the VOA Charter (U.S. Public Law 94-350) says: “1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”

An article on the AFGE Local 1812 website also revealed another management-imposed practice which appears to violate the VOA Charter — the agency’s management forcing Voice of America journalists to voice on a short notice news reports written abroad by individuals not associated with VOA and present them as VOA’s own reports without proper checking and editing.

AFGE LOCAL 1812: “As if that were not bad enough, the Union has learned of another facet of the placement problem. VOA employees, paid by the US taxpayers, are now performing as editors and announcers for a foreign broadcasting company.”
 
“According to the information we have received, English Division staff members are being provided with English- language scripts that are not generated domestically but written overseas – many in poor English — by foreign writers. Sometimes these scripts are provided for editing and voicing with only minutes to spare before the final product is due. VOA employees are required to correct any language errors, voice the pieces, and then send them back, in this case, to Bangladesh where they are supposedly aired on a local radio station.”
 
“Most of the stories are of such a local nature and the deadlines so tight that the VOA employees have almost no way to verify if the facts are right. To make matters worse, VOA employees are required to sign off the stories they are voicing using their names and to identify themselves as VOA employees. Although these employees do the best they can under these circumstances, it is just a matter of time before one of these stories is shown to be neither accurate nor objective and perhaps even detrimental to U.S. national interests.”

AFGE Local 1812 has asked a number of questions which board members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should insist on being answered by officials of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) who are in charge of this kind of program placement and promote it.

AFGE LOCAL 1812: “Over the years, the BBG and the VOA have been promoting the illusion that, in some cases, the VOA is acting in the capacity of the “affiliate” station’s Washington bureau while skimming over the fact that it is the foreign stations and not the VOA that determines the content. Where is the U.S. perspective on this as is called for in the VOA Charter? Where is the accountability to the U.S. taxpayer? What has happened to the mission? In these situations the VOA has been transformed into providing pre-censored, non-news feature placement programming with little or no impact instead of being the beacon of hope and freedom it had been in the not-too-distant past.”

According to inside sources, these dangerous program placement and editorial practices long predate the recent change of leadership at VOA. Kelu Chao, who is serving as interim VOA director after the recent departure of former director and the move of his former deputy to another position, is believed to be strongly opposed to any kind of program placement-driven news censorship and sloppy news editing. IBB also has a new interim leadership headed by André Mendes, but many IBB officials responsible for such decisions as conducting a public opinion poll in Russia-occupied Crimea or wanting to place censored VOA programs in Vietnam, a country which imprisons independent journalists, still occupy critical positions and don’t want to leave.

Affiliate-focused practices, some of which invite violations of the VOA Charter, have been long favored and promoted by IBB officials in charge of program placement and marketing who pay foreign stations with U.S. taxpayers’ dollars to rebroadcast pre-censored VOA programs because these stations will not take free and uncensored programs, inside sources told BBG Watch. IBB also pays for more legitimate transmitter leases and some useful rebroadcasts of OMB, RFE/RL, and RFA programs.

According to sources, Voice of America’s interim director Kelu Chao has been working hard on eliminating the most grievous violations of the VOA Charter, but with years of mismanagement she inherited and the vast amount of the agency’s budget and resources controlled by IBB officials, any person in charge of VOA has very limited options. Some IBB officials are now also trying to tighten and extend their control over the BBG’s better-managed non-federal entities.

Former Voice of America director David Ensor touted program placement as proof of VOA’s success. But the Voice of America has been underperforming and losing ground to RT and other competitors in recent years under particularly poor management at the VOA and the International Broadcasting Bureau level. The IBB, which controls most of the BBG’s $742 million budget (FY2015), is the management and program support arm of the BBG. IBB’s budgets and positions have grown tremendously in recent years even as IBB officials insisted on numerous cuts to VOA broadcasts and journalistic positions to preserve their own jobs. This cycle of program cuts is repeated every year with IBB always a winner. VOA’s FY2014 budget was $201.6 million.

Outside of paid and unpaid placement, including questionable pre-censored content, VOA’s uncensored news reports and programs, especially in English, have dismal social media audience engagement statistics compared to BBC, Russia RT, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) foreign language online outreach or even the U.S. State Department English language Facebook page. With the previous VOA leadership’s “Digital First” strategy, presented late and never fully implemented, and the decimated Voice of America newsroom, VOA has only a minimal voluntary worldwide audience — individuals who seek out VOA content online on their own. Paid and unpaid program placement represents a large portion of VOA’s claimed but questionable weekly audience of 171.6 million.

Inside sources also told BBG Watch that some types of unpaid and even some paid program placement by VOA can be very useful as long as they do not require pre-censorship, questionable news editing practices, or focusing on countries which already have free media and are not of critical strategic interest for the United States.

AFGE Local 1812 called for the immediate end to Voice of America news censorship and all similar projects.

###

AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES LOCAL 1812

Risk to Reputation

By AFGE Local 1812

 
For years, the BBG has been touting its agreements with foreign broadcasters to take VOA programming. The term used to describe this policy has been ‘placement’ on so-called “affiliates”.

For clarification: in no way are these stations “affiliated” with the United States Government or even the Voice of America. It’s more accurate to describe this as “placement” and in some cases “paid placement”, often at a high cost to the BBG and the U.S. taxpayer. Objectionable news content is sometimes pre-censored by VOA so as not to offend the national government, the audience, the station or the advertisers. Our so-called affiliate stations have the upper hand as to what they will accept for broadcast to avoid potential fines, license problems, loss of airtime and in the direst circumstances, imprisonment in their countries.

Over the years, the BBG and the VOA have been promoting the illusion that, in some cases, the VOA is acting in the capacity of the “affiliate” station’s Washington bureau while skimming over the fact that it is the foreign stations and not the VOA that determines the content. Where is the U.S. perspective on this as is called for in the VOA Charter? Where is the accountability to the U.S. taxpayer? What has happened to the mission? In these situations the VOA has been transformed into providing pre-censored, non-news feature placement programming with little or no impact instead of being the beacon of hope and freedom it had been in the not-too-distant past.

As if that were not bad enough, the Union has learned of another facet of the placement problem. VOA employees, paid by the US taxpayers, are now performing as editors and announcers for a foreign broadcasting company.

According to the information we have received, English Division staff members are being provided with English- language scripts that are not generated domestically but written overseas – many in poor English — by foreign writers. Sometimes these scripts are provided for editing and voicing with only minutes to spare before the final product is due. VOA employees are required to correct any language errors, voice the pieces, and then send them back, in this case, to Bangladesh where they are supposedly aired on a local radio station.

Most of the stories are of such a local nature and the deadlines so tight that the VOA employees have almost no way to verify if the facts are right. To make matters worse, VOA employees are required to sign off the stories they are voicing using their names and to identify themselves as VOA employees. Although these employees do the best they can under these circumstances, it is just a matter of time before one of these stories is shown to be neither accurate nor objective and perhaps even detrimental to U.S. national interests.

There is also the nagging question of whether or not this could be considered as a proper use of US government resources – including US government employees who were not hired with the expectation that they would act as employees of a foreign radio station.

VOA journalists, both English and foreign-language broadcasters, have often pointed with pride to their reputations as providers of objective, comprehensive and accurate news and information to the world about America, its institutions and ideals. Where are the principles of journalistic integrity in such detrimental placement or affiliate arrangements where the content is seemingly being dictated by a foreign entity to the journalists?

Giving the creators of this program the benefit of a doubt, perhaps one of the BBG’s highly-paid consultants or higher management officials are trying to justify this as a plan to train foreign journalists. If so, there has to be a better way to train foreign journalists without threatening the integrity of not only our broadcasters but also the entire VOA.

AFGE Local 1812 calls for the immediate end to this project and all similar projects.

You May Also Like