by The Federalist
Sunday, August 4, 2013 was a day of bad news for the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and its “strategic plan.”
The bad news came in the form of three articles in The Washington Post. In each, you will find no mention of the IBB or its strategic plan. You will find no mention of the agency’s programs. But the news is bad for the IBB nonetheless.
Two of the articles were written by the Post’s Laly Weymouth: one in the “A” Section (“Harsh Words For U.S. From Egypt”) which features an interview with General Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi, Egypt’s Defense Minister and another in the paper’s “Outlook” Section, also by Ms. Weymouth, which features an interview with Mohamed AlBaradei, Egyptian vice-president for external affairs.
We will take two quotes from these articles and examine them in the context of US Government international broadcasting in the hands of the IBB and its strategic plan.
First, from General Al-Sissi:
“You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that. Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians?”
Next, from Mr. AlBaradei:
Weymouth: “People seem extremely angry – at Morsi (the deposed Egyptian president), at the United States.”
AlBaradei: “Everybody is angry – we have 90 million people who are angry…We had a revolution two years ago, and we see people moving from a completely authoritarian system into a democracy. They don’t know how democracy works. They don’t know the ingredients of a democracy. It takes time… (emphasis added).”
Conventional wisdom in the Middle East is that whichever way Egypt goes, so goes the region. Things are not looking rosy. Anger toward the United States has become a Middle East common denominator.
It is not really unexpected, given two-thousand years of Middle East history. It is only unexpected if you have bought into that Western media-infused phrase, “the Arab Spring.” The IBB was right on that bandwagon. Unfortunately, reality rained on that parade.
What is taking place in the Middle East shows that over a decade of targeted broadcasting to the region via Radio Sawa and Alhurra television has failed to deliver the goods (“supporting freedom and democracy”) and has cost the American taxpayers millions of dollars in the process. To outward appearances, Arab/Muslim publics seem to be moving away from and not toward the editorial message of these broadcasts. They are responding to a different message, often conflicted and usually laced with violent vitriol.
And it gets worse.
Sectarian violence is on precipitous rise in Iraq – ironically during the Ramadan religious season.
And then there is Syria.
In turn, this leads us to question the “Middle East Voices” initiative of the Voice of America. We don’t see the value of this project. We don’t understand its purpose. Whose “voices” is the agency talking about?
In Syria in particular, there are jihadists supporting the Assad government and the rebel opposition. There can be no common ground with jihadists. One set is as bad as the next. How does the United States look when the agency puts itself between a rock and a hard place with no positive outcome?
Rowan Scarborough in The Washington Times (“Millions of Christians are caught in crossfire of Muslim wars in Mideast,” Friday, August 2), lays out the plight of Christian communities in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. Quoting a statement from a group called “Support Syrian Christians,” Scarborough notes that church burnings and anti-Coptic Christian riots have taken place in Egypt. Even more gruesome is the targeting of Christians by jihadist elements of rebel forces in Syria where a Franciscan priest was beheaded by the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group. Two Christian bishops, one Greek Orthodox and one Syrian Orthodox, have been kidnapped and are being held for ransom.
You will see some reports regarding the Coptic Christians in Egypt on the VOA “Middle East Voices,” website but we did not see anything on the targeting of Christians in the Syrian fighting.
One of the new members to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Mr. Crocker’s resume carries a large portfolio of postings to the Arab and Muslim world, one of the most extensive in the American diplomatic service.
With his background, Ambassador Crocker is positioned to take a hard look at precisely what the IBB is doing with regard to its Middle East broadcasting – not just Radio Sawa and Alhurra television but all of its broadcasts to the Arab and Muslim world. We have heard Ambassador Crocker interviewed on various news outlets. He is outspoken in his views. We would be very interested in his assessment of the IBB “vision” of its Middle East programs. In our view, these broadcasts are a failure and in need of serious recalibration.
And with regard to the VOA “Middle East Voices,” trying to do “kumbaya” in this region, where there are often bad guys on both sides of conflicts, is an exercise in abject foolishness.
One last thing on this particular subject:
“In support of freedom and democracy” starts with the United States and its citizens. We can’t do much good for anyone else, anywhere else, if we lack both security and resolve. Anyone who believes otherwise is a fool – and a dangerous one.
Trying to be “simpatico” with jihadists is the fool’s errand. It is seen as a sign of weakness. It weakens, not strengthens, our national security and our message.
It gets people killed.
(NOTE: Here’s an irony. There appear to be more than one “Alhurra” television station in the Middle East. One is the BBG operation. Another is a satellite television station based in Libya. Interesting and also confusing for people on the ground. Recently, a presenter for the non-BBG “Alhurra” station was targeted and killed in Benghazi.)
Returning to The Washington Post of Sunday, August 4, 2013: another dagger to the IBB’s strategic plan came in the form of the Post’s Simon Denyer’s report from Beijing (“China’s ‘netizens’ change the game”).
The title got us – and so did the first two paragraphs to his story:
“In the offices of China’s Communist Party newspaper, rows of analysts sit at computer screens poring over data that is stripped off the Internet.
Every comment made by the 591 million Chinese ‘netizens’ is analyzed at the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center, with summaries sent in real time to party leaders (emphasis added).”
This is extraordinary and perhaps strategically decisive on many levels.
The IBB claims a global Internet audience of around 10 million. By comparison, the Chinese Internet audience is almost 60 times larger than what the IBB can attract WORLDWIDE.
The IBB has a contract with the Gallup polling organization for $50-million dollars ($10-million per year for five years). By comparison, the Chinese government is going 24/7 analysis in real time. Even without a dollar cost attached to the Chinese operation, in terms of real time analysis, whatever Gallup contract calls for may not be at the same level of scale or intensity.
And also keep in mind that the IBB is notorious for “gaming the research:” manipulating data as to achieve a desired, positive response or outcome (as an example, taking the estimated audience of a radio or television station or network in Latin America or Indonesia and claiming it as its own).
As Denyer points out,
“More than ever before, China’s rulers are actually listening to their people, reacting quickly to contain potential crises that could threaten one-party control.”
From the perspective of Mr. Denyer’s report, in a country with over one billion people, the party leadership in Beijing knows that the stakes are high. They cannot afford to be wrong. They cannot have a sizable part of the population restive and angry. They need facts, not hypotheses to stay in power but also to address issues impacting on an enormous population.
In addition, the Internet is becoming part of a growing Chinese information industry. As Denyer notes,
“In response to government demand, opinion monitoring centers have sprung up in state-run news organizations and universities to mine and interpret the vast rivers of chatter on the Internet. At the same time, the authorities are hiring firms to poll people about everything from traffic management to tax policy.”
We are not a cheerleading section for the Chinese Communist Party.
At the same time, we marvel at how well they have adapted themselves and their country to the 21st century. Without question, they have many issues to contend with across a broad spectrum as one would expect from a country with such a large population. This is but one example of how the Chinese leadership is putting information technology to work in managing the country.
And there are some consequential by-products.
These developments serve as a useful example of how the IBB has been defeated in China.
As always, we point out that this is not a reflection on the hard work and dedication of the staff of the agency’s China Branch. Not at all.
What this represents is how the Chinese government can marshal overwhelming resources to a particular task. There may be a few dozen or so employees working in the VOA China Branch, trying to get programs into the country. At the same time, there may be thousands, even tens of thousands of Chinese engaged in the government activities noted above, in addition to those whose job is controlling Internet content via “The Great Firewall,” those engaged in blocking IBB radio programs and a whole host of operations by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engaged in data espionage and electronic/digital warfare.
In short, whatever the IBB is doing has been overwhelmed, out-done and out-maneuvered by the Chinese government.
Last and definitely not least, add to this the Chinese international broadcasting component.
But it goes even beyond this:
In short, this represents a case study in limited self-determination or at the very least impactful public opinion. As Denyer points out, it is unlikely that the Chinese leadership will be influenced by Internet chatter to shape political reform or foreign policy. At the same time, this chatter over the Chinese Internet is a significant development of participatory citizenship on the part of a population that can only become increasingly well educated and influenced by information technology.
For the IBB, it represents a major strategic defeat. What this indicates is that the Chinese are “doing it for themselves.” They have their own Internet and are being less reliant upon outside Internet resources, including those of the IBB.
It is one significant example of how the IBB has lost resonance with global publics.
In terms of the day-to-day, Chinese have turned their backs on what is coming from Washington and are more interested in their own internal dialogue on issues impacting them directly. To be certain, there are many in China who turn to the United States for support on a variety of important social and political issues. That said, if the internal dialogue becomes a staple of Chinese communication with its leadership that results in evolving the Chinese political landscape the need for interaction with the US may decrease.
In his recent appearance before a “staff meeting” in the Cohen Building, VOA director David Ensor tried to make a claim that the state of VOA is strong.
It is a fatuous claim.
Whether in the Middle East, China, Russia and elsewhere, the reality speaks otherwise.
What To Do Now?
As to be expected, the IBB doesn’t allow for many choices. They would very much like to hold the Congress and the American taxpayer hostage to “business as usual.” They have no interest in admitting their gross negligence in executing the agency’s mission and taking substantial remedial action.
In the current state of affairs, this IBB model is more than a strategic defeat. It is a rout. When things get this bad, one thing is clear: the IBB paradigm needs to be taken off the table.
The only logical alternative is a salvage operation: and that means potentially migrating VOA to the State Department and giving it a reconstituted mission in public diplomacy.
For the grantees, their brave new world could be within the National Endowment for Democracy where they would carry over the BBG statement of “in support of freedom and democracy.”
Last but not least, say good-bye, good-night and good riddance to the IBB.