BBG Watch Commentary
FROM THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EDITORIAL: Today’s dissenters need software to evade the regime’s internet firewalls. Yet the U.S. government seems remarkably slow and backward in spreading the freedom message, starting with the taxpayer-backed Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG’s mission is to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” which should put it in the center of Iran’s online battle. But the presidentially appointed BBG board has become a political sinecure, rather than a home for foreign-policy experts who want to fight oppression. Its current CEO, former cable industry executive John Lansing, was appointed by President Obama. President Trump hasn’t nominated a replacement. While Iranians are desperate for reliable circumvention technology, the BBG leadership has spent only $15 million of its $787 million 2017 budget on internet freedom and anti-censorship projects, and the agency is telling vendors it’ll take weeks to direct more funding to these projects. The place needs a thorough rethinking for the internet age. Is President Trump aware that he could dismiss the BBG’s current board and nominate a CEO who’s more attuned to foreign policy and the fight for freedom?
READ MORE: Iran’s Internet Imperative: The U.S. can do far more to help Iranians defeat the regime’s firewall. The Wall Street Journal Editorial, January 17, 2018.
BBG Watch Commentary
Technically, current BBG CEO John Lansing was not directly appointed by President Obama, but he was appointed at the recommendation of former Democratic BBG Board Chairman who has been a large contributor to the Democratic Party. His choice was approved by technically a bipartisan board but one with a Democratic Party majority. The Wall Street Journal is right, the BBG Board has been a “political sinecure” for many years. The Board itself no longer has executive powers that it had until recently, but it still exists with almost the same membership as during the Obama administration. Its [no-]leadership choices are still in place
There are some small parts of the Broadcasting Board of Governors that are still working well. There are still some excellent and dedicated journalists among BBG’s media entities but far fewer of them than ten or twenty years ago and even fewer effective managers. Radio Free Asia (RFA) has been doing Internet censorship countermeasures and promoting freedom and human rights in Asia, but overall there is no denying that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has been a failure. The Wall Street Journal is right. The senior management of the Voice of America wants to fire three VOA Mandarin Service journalists who have been in the forefront of the battle to overcome censorship in communist-ruled China.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors might argue that the current BBG Board has foreign policy experts. It does. But historically, most BBG members have been ineffective in pushing the freedom and human rights message. The Wall Street Journal is again right on this point. There have been practically no well-known and energetic freedom supporters and activists among them in a sufficiently large number—the kind of people who had gravitated to U.S. international broadcasting during the Cold War and led with with great success until the Broadcasting Board of Governors took over when the United States Information Agency and the board in charge of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) were eliminated at the end of the Cold War. The BBG has been a historic failure.
Some of the past and current BBG Board members and even a VOA official have had multimillion-dollar corporate business interests in China and Russia, or their family members do. How is that supposed to help advance the freedom agenda in those countries? One does not do successful private business in Russia or China if one annoys the people in power in those countries. These foreign business interests of BBG and VOA officials should be immediately publicly disclosed on the BBG website. Better yet, any BBG and VOA official who has substantial foreign business interests should resign and continue his or her private sector activities with no links to U.S. international media outreach.
At this moment, VOA continues to put out Iran regime propaganda with hardly any balance or challenge in many of the VOA news reports. Iranian protesters say that VOA and Radio Farda have failed them. An Iranian journalist and former political prisoner in Iran tweeted recently:
Dear Americans, The U.S. taxpayer-founded @VOANews & @RFERL never took the right stance on #IranProtests as well as they have done in favor of Mullahs. It’s shameful. #ReformBBG @BBGWatch @BBGgov @realDonaldTrump @VP @StateDept @statedeptspox @SenTomCotton @KenTimmerman
— KavehTaheri (@TaheriKaveh) January 6, 2018
Historically, the majority of BBG Board members has been quickly persuaded by the BBG government bureaucracy to form a mutual admiration society in support of the management team. These failed bureaucrats impressed them because BBG members lack the knowledge of U.S. government operations. In any case, the BBG Board has now no real power and the Agency has no one in charge who could be called a U.S. foreign policy, U.S. public diplomacy, U.S. international media or government management expert. None of them knows how government bureaucracy works and how it should be managed—how government employees should be led and be motivated to advance the Agency’s noble mission. They have no idea. That’s why employee morale at the BBG remains record low, as does employee confidence in the current leadership. The BBG has been a failure on Iran and freedom.