Broadcasting Board of Governors – A View from Jakarta

by The Federalist

When Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials brag about growing audience numbers overseas, taxpayers and members of Congress should always ask what are these audiences actually listening to or watching: is it uncensored American, international and national news with hard-hitting commentary or are they getting English lessons on iTunes and innocuous lifestyle features that anyone in the private sector could possibly even sell to a foreign broadcaster? We’re not saying that cultural programs are bad as part of a well-rounded program, which includes news, but since BBG officials eliminate newscasts, even to China, there is a need for a better disclosure of inconvenient facts that may lead to questioning of BBG audience and impact claims.

Our sources are always looking for these rarely reported facts relating to the BBG and IBB staff. More often than not they find a something worth commenting on.

Here’s one:

We have a web version of the “JakartaGlobe” and an article titled “Voice of America Leans on Indonesia to Alter Broadcast Law.”

Some years ago, the Indonesian government enacted a law that regulates the live broadcast of news from foreign news outlets over Indonesian radio and television.

Enter Norman Goodman, chief of the Voice of America (VOA) Indonesian service. During a visit by Indonesian lawmakers in April, the article reports that Goodman “requested” that the Indonesian House of Representatives make changes to their Broadcast Law to amend prohibitions against live broadcasts by foreign media.

You can read the full article here:

The Jakarta Globe – “Voice of America Leans on Indonesia to Alter Broadcast Law,” Markus Junianto Sihaloho | April 30, 2012

Here’s a little background and perspective:

The VOA Indonesian Service has been around for a long time. In the big picture, Indonesia is an important place for US Government broadcasts. Indonesia is a country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Some years ago al-Qaeda, or one of its affiliates, conducted a terrorist attack against a Bali nightclub. It is the kind of thing that makes both Indonesian and US authorities nervous and watchful.

In the last ten years or so, the VOA Indonesian Service has embraced television in a big way. The Indonesian Service has a large television contingent made up largely of young Indonesians recruited by the agency for this purpose. The radio part of the service is made up of more veteran broadcasters.

So what’s the story here, with a VOA service chief deciding to – in so many words – tell the Indonesian government what to do?

Direct broadcasting to Indonesia is really not the issue. The Indonesian government would have to spend a lot of money on jamming direct broadcasts whether by radio or television.

The Indonesian government’s attention is on foreign broadcasters using local Indonesian radio and television stations to carry their programs. In VOA, they call these stations “affiliates.” They really aren’t. What is really going on is what is called “placement.” In this instance, getting an Indonesian radio or television station, or network, to agree to carry VOA Indonesian Service programs. These agreements often involve payments of large sums of money by the BBG to a local station or network.

What are US taxpayers paying for is a legitimate question.

If an agreement is reached, which may or may not involve a large payment by the BBG, the agency would then provide downlink equipment to the station. It would be interesting to determine how much payments for “placement” and equipment cost the American taxpayer and just as importantly, what happens to that equipment when an agreement with a particular station expires. It can’t be cheap.

Here’s the next part of the process:

By law, the Indonesian radio and television stations cannot broadcast live foreign programs, particularly news programs. The Indonesian government clearly wants to exercise control over foreign broadcaster news content.

In one scenario, on the radio side, this means structuring a program with what are called “cutaways;” in other words, the program starts, maybe with a minute of talk-up about what’s coming in the show. About sixty seconds into the program, there is a cue for the news. The Indonesian station breaks away from the VOA feed and inserts its own news segment. The length is determined by the program content to follow the news. In the meantime, back in DC, the Indonesian service broadcasts their own news – if the program is also being transmitted via shortwave and thus not directly subject to the prohibitions put in place by the Indonesian government.

Thus, when the news segment ends, the Indonesian station can rejoin the non-news segment of the program.

Of course, the station can also record the program for later broadcast to make sure there is no content that would infringe on the Indonesian Broadcast Law. Better to be safe, than sorry.

For television, it’s a little bit different.

In this scenario, perhaps the most likely one, the Indonesian station takes a satellite feed from VOA in DC. The program is recorded. Editors at the Indonesian station go over the program content. They can and will excise program content that will get the station and the station owner in trouble. No station owner is going to run afoul of the government and risk losing his/her station license and/or perhaps spend some jail time for the infraction, if it happens to be a particularly flagrant violation of Indonesian law.

In reviewing the content, the Indonesian editors have several options:

They can run the material as is, assuming it’s clear of troublesome content.

They can trash the content and not run it at all.

They can embed the content as part of a locally produced Indonesian television program. In doing so, they may or may not identify the VOA content as to its origin. In some cases, they can make it appear that the VOA Indonesian reporter is a reporter for the television station. They can also minimize or remove the VOA logo to similarly make it appear that the program content originates with the station.

Now, you can be sure that this poses a dilemma for the VOA Indonesian Service chief. News content is not going to get through. That leaves the service in the position of producing “lifestyle” features which really have a limited value for the agency’s core mission as defined in the VOA Charter.

Television production is costly. Television satellite time is costly. Paying for placement costly if a network or a station demand such payments, as many do, not only in Indonesia. Providing downlink equipment to Indonesian stations is costly. A roomful of employees to do television is costly.

How much is a “lifestyle” feature without news placed on an Indonesian station worth to American taxpayers? If a TV viewer in Indonesia gets to see such a feature but does not see VOA news, can he or she be counted as getting news from the United States? Can he or she be legitimately included in the overall weekly VOA audience numbers as one TV viewer/radio listener or perhaps as only one tenth of one?

These are not good things for the VOA Indonesian service chief to ponder day to day.

Hence, in the current VOA paradigm, a not unusual encounter between the VOA Indonesian Service chief with the Indonesian delegation “requesting” they change their laws.

Now, from the Indonesian perspective, it is doubtful they like heavy-handed tactics coming from VOA. They have a law in place which some Indonesian lawmakers claim works well enough for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). They probably don’t see any wisdom in reinventing the wheel for the sake of a complaining service chief of the VOA Indonesian Service.

As we often remark, you don’t have to like the way other governments operate vis-à-vis the BBG/IBB scheme of things. But it helps to understand it. And even better, to have a plan. US international broadcasting was invented to overcome news censorship by foreign governments. What is the BBG doing about it in countries like China and Tibet? — proposing to eliminate and actually eliminating newscasts.

One of the most important things to understand is that things have changed for the BBG/IBB. They aren’t the big man on campus in international broadcasting. It’s a different world – one which they have not adjusted to very well. They still can’t tell a difference between news and an Oscar feature. To them, they are both worth the same, in terms of audience ratings and how much they are willing to pay to have them placed.

One recalls from the “West Wing” mini-series an episode in which two of the president’s aides try to approach an aide to a foreign dignitary on a human rights issue. They scramble to find a translator and ultimately got everyone together in the White House kitchen to try to parley the problem.

After a fashion, the dignitary interrupted the translator and addressed the aides in English, remarking how President Bartlet had made remarks offending the foreign dignitary. He then tells President Bartlet’s aides to “go to hell.”

The foreign dignitary was a fictional president of Indonesia. You may want to watch it: West Wing, Season One, Episode Seven, “The State Dinner.”

This could be one of those “go to hell” moments for the BBG. If you are going to “request” a foreign government to change its laws, you better have something to offer. If you don’t, what do you expect the response will be? Such “requests” are usually discussed in confidential government-to-government diplomatic exchanges. There is always a quid pro quo. If you go public, you better know what you can hope to achieve.

Someone needs to call these BBG/IBB/VOA boys into a room before they again expose their own weakness, embarrass the United States or even cause an international incident. It would be better to have a workable plan on how to deliver the news and effectively deal with local gatekeepers. We know that much — a “request” from the VOA Indonesian Service chief is not going to do it.

The Federalist
May 2012