BBG Watch has learned that a proposed privatization of the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) is widely opposed by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal employees, their union, the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org), and numerous foreign policy and public diplomacy professionals, as well as some former VOA journalists. At the same time, critics of privatization of America’s “Voice” strongly support structural reforms of its ailing federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which they blame for VOA’s troubles.
“A decision to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors merits its own separate bill where both houses of Congress can debate and carefully consider the best course of action,” AFGE Local 1812 union told its Broadcasting Board of Governors members. “It should not be addressed in a stealth last minute amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act,” the union said. The union urged BBG employees to contact their senators and express their opposition to the amendment submitted by Congressman Mac Thornberry and “the offensive language is contained in section 310 (b) of the amendment.” The Senate version of the bill does not have this language, the union reported. Also see an earlier AFGE Local 1812 article, HERE WE GO AGAIN: Another Agency Attempt to De-federalize TV and Radio Marti.
While visiting Capitol Hill to attend a tribute to late human rights activist and former Chinese Laogai labor camp prisoner Harry Wu, CUSIB co-director and former VOA acting associate director Ted Lipien said that the amendment introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Mac Thornberry offers no workable institutional link to enable the Voice of America to carry out its Charter obligations. Neither does it offer any checks and balances to make the agency and its CEO accountable to American taxpayers, administration or Congress, and therefore it is potentially highly dangerous, he observed.
The BBG desperately needs major institutional reforms that only a carefully crafted separate legislation can provide, Lipien said, but privatization of the Voice of America under this proposed amendment would turn over a well-known American public institution to nameless individuals and make it irrelevant for foreign audiences. What is needed is a separation of the Voice of America from any surrogate media outreach, strengthening of its Charter identity and ideally placing it within a new public diplomacy structure similar to the former United States Information Agency (USIA) that can receive and provide domestic political support for VOA’s mission; otherwise it will be a disaster for reflecting and explaining U.S. policies to critical foreign audiences and for its long-term funding, Lipien added. He had worked for U.S. international media outreach for over 30 years and later co-founded both BBG Watch and CUSIB.
Lipien and CUSIB executive director Ann Noonan attended Wednesday a tribute in the Library of Congress to late CUSIB board member Harry Wu, at which Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and former Congressman Frank Wolf spoke. Other speakers included Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Annette Lantos Tillemann Dick of Tom Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, Kaydor Aukatsang, Representative of the Dalai Lama, Peter Mueller, Laogai Research Foundation European Representative, and Ann Noonan. Rep. Chris Smith, who was also present, inserted in the Congressional Record his earlier remarks on the passing of Harry Wu.
Rep. Pelosi said at the event on Capitol Hill that that “when Harry Wu entered our lives, we were in the presence of greatness, greatness of soul, greatness of purpose.” She described Harry Wu as a person “whose years in Chinese labor camps strengthened him and gave him moral authority to speak to us.” Rep. Smith said in his remarks inserted in the Congressional Record that “because of Harry’s commitment to the truth, the stories of [Laogai] survivors were not silenced, but were published for the world to see.”
As a member of CUSIB, Harry Wu had opposed several past BBG decisions to cut or reduce radio and satellite television transmissions to the poorest and most vulnerable audiences in China and Tibet. Annette Lantos, Harry Wu’s supporter, was one of many prominent Americans who in 2012 wrote letters to the Broadcasting Board of Governors opposing proposals for programming cuts to China, Tibet, and Putin’s Russia. Annette Lantos is the widow of former Congressman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor who had served in the U.S. Congress. He was also Harry Wu’s close friend and supported his human rights work.
Critics fear that placing the Voice of America, a public institution, in the hands of private individuals is likely to lead to even greater abandonment of long-term foreign policy and human rights considerations in favor of commercially-driven decisions made by accidental managers with limited knowledge of U.S. foreign policy, foreign countries and their cultures, which already describes the BBG after USIA was abolished in 1999.
AFGE Local 1812 said that “a decision to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors merits its own separate bill where both houses of Congress can debate and carefully consider the best course of action.” “It should not be addressed in a stealth last minute amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act,” the union emphasized.
The union and other supporters of BBG’s federal employees are also telling members of Congress that the one example of privatizing a Voice of America language service (VOA Arabic to the Middle East Broadcasting Network) significantly increased costs to the taxpayers. What was an annual cost of 6 million a year now costs over 100 million a year, the union said.