USAGM Watch Commentary
By Ted Lipien
President Biden must act quickly to reform the Voice of America (VOA) and U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) to help stop Voice of America’s failure in Ethiopia which contributes to genocide in Tigray, the northernmost regional state.
In my recent op-ed in The Washington Examiner, I wrote that what President Biden needs to do is appoint new leaders to take charge of the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the Voice of America. They should focus on basic human rights around the world and not be distracted by partisan politics in the United States. They should have international experience and a proven record of being successful managers. They should absolutely have no financial interests abroad.
I argued that any new USAGM and VOA leaders must not be naive about Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, or any other country, including Ethiopia. They should not continue the practice of their predecessors of constant foreign travels and public meetings with corrupt foreign politicians. A few VOA managers and reporters even expressed public thanks to various autocrats or autocratic regimes for their fake commitment to democracy. More than a dozen VOA reporters took bribes from a foreign politician. One VOA manager attended a reception organized in his honor by a foreign political leader.
Such behavior destroys morale of good and honest VOA reporters who represent the vast majority of USAGM employees. These practices have seriously damaged the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcaster’s reputation in China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, and now Ethiopia.
Some of the ethnic communities in the United States are outraged. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), seems to have lost trust in the current USAGM management. There is a growing awareness among members of Congress, mainstream media reporters, and Biden Administration officials that they many have been misled by longtime former and current bureaucrats about what has been the major cause of USAGM’s problems in recent years. Some of these executives and managers have been there for decades.
I suggested in my op-ed that President Biden should take a drastic step and abolish USAGM or at least vastly reduce the agency’s federal bureaucracy. I also called for more independence and more money for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) until all of U.S. international broadcasting gets a complete overhaul from his administration and the U.S. Congress in a bipartisan effort that is urgently needed.
In my article, I mentioned Senator Biden’s intervention in 1993 to protect independent grantee status of RFE/RL. His action then helped RFE/RL to some degree, but in recent years the growing federal bureaucracy managed to do damage not only to VOA but also to the so-called grantee broadcasters, among them RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia (RFA). Their independence, which then Senator Biden tried to save, has been greatly undermined by USAGM officials.
I also mentioned the disgrace of VOA’s current coverage of genocide in Ethiopia:
“Another recently reported scandal is VOA’s censorship of reports of genocide in Ethiopia and the promotion of the Ethiopian government’s propaganda. The current management team for months ignored warnings about this problem….”
Due to the op-ed word limit, not enough was said about VOA’s Ethiopia coverage, considering the utter disgrace of what has happened to it under the current USAGM and VOA management recently and over many years.
There should be much more awareness at the White House and in the U.S. Congress of the decades-long abuse of journalistic principles by some staffers and managers at the Voice of America whose failures have been hidden and who have been protected by the VOA and USAGM senior leadership. The management’s primary objective was not to root out the corruption but simply to cover up any scandal that could damage their own reputations.
The lack of scrutiny and accountability resulted in questionable hirings of associates of agency officials and even the recruitment of a few former employees of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda channels who still show pride on social media in their previous work for the Russian state media. The person in charge of strategic planning for USAGM, who was also the top advisor to one of the former agency CEOs, stole money from the U.S. government and spent time in a federal prison.
Senator Biden was right in 1993 when he tried to limit the power of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) over the surrogate broadcasters. It does not mean that they do not need better oversight and more accountability. They do. But at the end of the Cold War, many people in Washington assumed wrongly that the consolidation of all U.S. international broadcasting operations would achieve savings. In fact, the opposite happened. The federal BBG and its current successor, the USAGM, have wasted even more money while restricting the ability of grantees such as RFE/RL and RFA to do their job in countries under some of the most oppressive and even genocidal regimes.
Bad management practices, which have long existed at the federal agency, were observed at some of the grantee organizations because they have lost much of their previous independence. As I have observed over many years, including the time when I was a radio listener living under communism behind the Iron Curtain, Radio Free Europe was always better managed and more focused on its mission than the Voice of America. I noted in my op-ed that while during various periods of history, the Voice of America sometimes repeated Soviet propaganda or censored news about Soviet crimes, such as the 1940 Katyn Massacre, Radio Free Europe never resorted to such censorship.
Ethiopia is just the latest example of the inability of the USAGM to provide leadership and insure good governance at the Voice of America. During the Cold War, when I was in charge of VOA broadcasting to Poland, U.S. ethnic communities were highly supportive of VOA and our work. In recent years, Chinese-Americans, Iranian-Americans, Ethiopian-Americans and others have staged protest demonstrations against the VOA management. A photograph posted on Twitter on June 2, 2021 by Rahel Tigraweyti (ሃገረ ዓባይ ትግራይ)@RYifter shows Washingtonian Tegaru protesting in front of the Voice of America building in D.C. An Ethiopian woman can be seen holding a sign, “VOA AMHARIC IS BIASED MEDIA.”
President Biden should take notice of these problems and protests. He has already issued a strong statement condemning “human rights abuses taking place in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence.” The First Lady, Jill Biden, who had visited Ethiopia in 2016, is said to be greatly disturbed by the latest news from the country.
The Biden Administration needs to seek bipartisan congressional support to carry out structural reforms at VOA’s federal agency. In the meantime, President Biden should use his executive powers to appoint new leaders at USAGM who can right the ship of U.S. international broadcasting. Lives of innocent and oppressed men, women and children in Ethiopia, China, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and in quite a few other countries literally depend on it.
For those interested in history of U.S. international broadcasting, I attach copies of two archival documents from 1993, one of them–a letter dated October 27, 1993 sent by then U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. to Joseph Duffey, Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) and to Dan Mica, Chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB).