Official letter outlining restrictions on BBG programs in Cambodia.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Cambodian government announced that it has lifted the ban. We thank Governor Ashe for his intervention.

But this ban and other similar bans, including the one Russia not too long ago, as well as threats of such bans, are a sword hanging over the head of U.S. internatinal broadcasting. They do affect programming in direct and subtle ways. Even with the ban lifted, the Cambodian government may have sent an effective message to international broadcasters to behave or else they might be permanently banned in the country. The Russian government of President Putin does it all the time.

The BBG has been made vulnerable by IBB strategy of over-reliance on local rebroadcasting in nations ruled by authoritarian governments. IBB officials should be more careful with what kind of regimes they do business and always have a strong and reluable back-up content delivery. The latest crisis showed that IBB did not have an emergency response ready to launch.

BBG members should watch the IBB project in Mauritania and make sure that it does not affect reporting by Radio Sawa and Voice of America. They should ask questions as to why VOA English and French websites did not report on the Amnesty International warnings about torture in that country and have done very little recent reporting for the web on human rights violations perpetrated by Mauritanian authorities.

The Federalist sent us this note. “The issue exposes the vulnerabilities of the agency’s broadcast operations.
The ban annonounced and later withdrawn by the Cambodian authorities exposes the agency’s shortcomings with regard to being cut off from target audiences if a foreign government chooses to do so by denying IBB its domestic media services, which it has the power to do at any time.”

Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost – Dysfunctional, Defunct and On the Ropes – Caught Off-Guard, Again – Cambodia, Will Mauritania Be Next?

by The Federalist

Latest BBG press release headline dated June 28, 2013:


BBG Condemns Foreign Media Ban In Cambodia


The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is reacting to a decision by the Cambodian government prohibiting the broadcast of news programming about Cambodia by foreign broadcasters over Cambodian FM radio stations for a period of 31 days prior to national elections in Cambodia scheduled for July 28.

The BBG statement of condemnation is fine as far as it goes.  But the reality is, it doesn’t go far enough and it is not deterring the Cambodian government from going forward with its plans.

So let’s ask the question:

Are the editors of BBG Watch the only people not surprised by this development?

Seemingly, the BBG – or perhaps more accurately, the flim flam artists of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) – didn’t see this one coming. They again embarrassed themselves, the BBG and BBG members by their over-reliance on and over-promotion of rebroadcasts in countries ruled by repressive governments. When things go wrong, the world does not hear from IBB executives who limited BBG’s options; they go to BBG members to speak out. One of the most experienced and respected BBG members, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, had to make a statement on Cambodia. (He and his two current colleagues on the BBG Board also had to fix the mess with Radio Liberty in Russia that IBB executives allowed to develop and later ignored. This pattern is now repeating itself over and over.) Ambassador Ashe said:

“By denying its citizens access to unbiased news and information in this critical time it is undermining its own legitimacy and blatantly repudiating the very democracy it claims to espouse.  When I visited Cambodia in May, I met with leaders in the media and civil society.  I know first-hand how much they rely on the reporting of RFA and VOA.”

A very good statement. But what did IBB executives propose as a counter-measure?

“Because of the Cambodian government’s action, both broadcasters are now considering adding shortwave frequencies.”

Really? What IBB press release should have said instead is:

“We have already added both shortwave (SW) and medium wave (MW – AM) frequencies and expanded coverage on direct satellite radio, satellite TV and Internet. We have requested additional visas for VOA and RFA reporters to go to Cambodia and report from there.”

BBG Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman signs agreement with the head of Telediffusion de Mauritanie (TDM), Dieh Ould Sidaty.
BBG Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman signs agreement with the head of Telediffusion de Mauritanie (TDM), Dieh Ould Sidaty.

Another recent BBG press release:

BBG Signs Agreement For Two FM Transmitters In Mauritania, June 24, 2013.

The BBG press release includes a photo of IBB Director of Strategy and Development Bruce Sherman signing agreement with the head of Telediffusion de Mauritanie (TDM), Dieh Ould Sidaty. The press release is dated June 24.

On June 26, Amnesty International issued a report:

Men, women and children tortured to confess to crimes in Mauritania, June 26, 2013.

From Amnesty International

“They made me sit on the ground in a crouch position. They attached one of my hands with my foot with handcuffs and then did the same with my other foot and my other hand. They put a stick under my knees and put the stick between two water containers. That lifted me into the air and my head swung down towards the ground. They started beating my head with their batons. I lost consciousness three times.”

16-year-old boy held at the Brigade des Jeunes, a police post in Mauritania’s capital

“In Mauritania, there’s a terrifying pattern of abuse when it comes to terrorism-related cases: individuals are arrested, prevented from speaking to a lawyer, tortured into confessing to a crime and taken to short and summary trials where confessions are used as the main evidence. How can that be called justice?.”

Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada English Branch.

The official language of Mauritania is Arabic. BBG’s Radio Sawa broadcasts in Arabic. French and English are also spoken among the political and intellectual elites and among many educated young Mauritanians. Radio Sawa is famous for its music programs, less for its news. We could not check its website for reports on slavery and other human rights abuses in Mauritania. Music, even Western, is not likely to offend government officials practicing or condoning torture.

But what did the Voice of America (VOA) report on its French and English websites on the most recent Amnesty Internatinal report on Mauritania?

We did a search of the Voice of America English website for such words as “Mauritania,” “Amnesty International,” “torture,” “human rights.” Nothing – no recent reports relating to torture, other human rights abuses or government corruption in Mauritania.

We also did a search of the Voice of America French to Africa website, La Voix de l’Amérique, for such words as “Mauritanie,” “Amnesty International,” “la torture,” “droits de l’homme.” Again – nothing – no recent reports relating to torture, other human rights abuses or government corruption in Mauritania.

President Obama is currently in Africa, June 27 – July 2, visiting Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. The White House issued FACT SHEET: U.S. Support for Strengthening Democratic Institutions, Rule of Law, and Human Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Continuing slavery, slavery-related practices, and trafficking in persons were central human rights problems” in Mauritania, as are prison conditions.” – The U.S. State Department

Why hasn’t Voice of America been reporting on human rights abuses in Mauritania? Was someone told not to report because of IBB’s negotiations with the government on FM rebroadcasting? Do VOA journalists practice self-censorship knowing that IBB controls their future? Don’t they care about human rights in Mauritania? Was their capacity to report such news completely destroyed by IBB bureaucrats?

What do victims of torture and their relatives in Mauritania think about BBG signing agreements with the government whose officials engage in torture and other human rights abuses? What do they think when they go to VOA websites and do not find any news about recent Amnesty International reports on torture in their country?

Assuming FM rebroadcasts start in Mauritania, can IBB claim an audience increase, as they always like to do, if human rights reporting is not included? Perhaps IBB should claim only those among the audience whose human rights have not been abused yet by government officials and functionaries.

The State Department human rights report describes Mauritania as “a highly centralized Islamic republic with a president as head of state governing under a constitution based on a combination of French civil and Sharia law.”

The report goes on to say:

“reported human rights problems included: use of torture by police to extract confessions; other abusive treatment, arbitrary arrests, lengthy pretrial detention; government influence over the judiciary; limits on freedom of the press and assembly; restrictions on religious freedom for non-Muslims; corruption; discrimination against women; female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); child marriage; political marginalization of southern-based ethnic groups; racial and ethnic discrimination; child labor; and inadequate enforcement of labor laws.”

If VOA is not reporting on these issues in Mauritania, what good is local FM rebroadcasting? The latest La Voix de l’Amérique / VOA French to Africa search results for “Mauritanie” and “la torture” are from 2008.

Should Voice of America start reporting on Amnesty International statements on Mauritania and cover government corruption and press censorship in that country, how long will it take for the government of Mauritania to shut down or put restrictions on VOA’s FM rebroadcasts?

It may indeed be better for VOA not to cover Amnesty International human rights reports and other such “delicate” issues in the first place if IBB wants these FM rebroadcasts in Mauritania to continue. What do you think will happen in Mauritania, knowing what happened in Russia and Cambodia?


The press release did not say that because IBB executives are fixated on local rebroadcasts only and are in charge of drafting press releases.

We are not saying that local rebroadcasts are always a bad idea, far from it, if they are done right, announced the right way, and if there is a good back-up plan. The problem is in how IBB executives manage and present this project to the outside world, and how their actions affect both strategy and reporting and commitment to the BBG mission by the Voice of America and other BBG broadcasters.

How many times has this scenario been played out: in China, Russia, Indonesia?  Well, here it is again.

You would think the agency would catch on by now.

But it hasn’t.  And the reason why is because it has committed itself to being in a position of vulnerability to countermeasures by governments who have a world view at odds with that of the IBB.

It comes as no surprise to us, since we know the Cambodian government almost as well as the IBB.  Basically, it’s another corrupt thugocracy, in this case led by Prime Minister “Only Hun Sen Can Remove Hun Sen.”

Mr. Hun Sen may be a “thugocrat,” but he is not stupid.  He, his government and whoever may be advising him externally, all know full well that the United States (and others) are becoming heavily reliant upon “program placement” on domestic Cambodian stations and less active via direct radio and satellite TV broadcasts.

Fortunately, in this case, the agency hasn’t completely ditched its shortwave broadcast capability to Cambodia.  And it will have to rely upon it – heavily – again.

And forget about the website and social media avenues.  Instead of keeping silent on these media choices, the agency has basically let the Cambodian government know that these assets remain in play.  In a heartbeat, the Cambodian government can cut these options off as well.

The Cambodian government also knows that outside of Phnom Penh, access to the IBB technology playground is spotty at best.  On its face, the Hun Sen government targeted what it believes is the most effective media device in Cambodia.  They don’t appear to be all that worried about the Internet and social media – because many Cambodians are too dirt poor to afford the hardware necessary to access it.

But the Cambodian government does know the reach of radio and that is clearly why it has moved aggressively to take the domestic Cambodian radio option for Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) right out of the equation.

Once again, it’s the radio that trumps all.

So, now what?

The press release states that VOA and RFA are “considering adding shortwave frequencies.”

Message to the BBG:

You don’t “consider.”  You do.

Otherwise, the agency can be portrayed as engaging in pontification without the fortitude or the substance to back it up.  You appear weak and impotent.

And you best be prepared to go at it beyond Mr. Hun Sen’s 31 day window of an international news blackout because –

He could easily extend the ban or make it permanent.  And if he is as cunning as we think he is, he’d be holding his cards close and keep the characters on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building guessing.


Another consideration:


As these things have a way of going, a certain amount of disinformation and misinformation has already built up; namely, that it is RFA and VOA who have stopped broadcasting to Cambodia.  We don’t know in detail how the Cambodian government is explaining – or not explaining – its actions.  However, one can be reasonably sure that they won’t necessarily be in a big hurry to dispel any rumors relating to the situation if those rumors put RFA and VOA in a bad light with the Cambodian people.

In light of this week’s hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, this provides a perfect example of how the deliberately set upon strategy of the IBB creates vulnerabilities for US Government international broadcasting.

And, it is also a sterling example of how “supporting freedom and democracy” as the IBB claims has its weaknesses.  The Congress needs an important moment of “situational awareness and get the agency back on message with the VOA Charter as its priority consideration.  The charter per se would not prevent this situation from arising.  But at the same time, it would not put the agency between a rock and a hard place when someone decides to show how difficult “supporting freedom and democracy” can be from a US Government office building thousands of miles away.

As lofty as the sentiment may be, it makes the United States look stupid when some small corrupt government can extend “the international salute” to the United States and dare it to have an effective countermeasure.

But this is the way it is when dealing with a defunct US Government agency.


The Federalist

June 2013


BBG Press Release

BBG Condemns Foreign Media Ban In Cambodia

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has condemned a directive issued by the Cambodian government that forbids the broadcasting of all foreign programming for 31 days prior to the July 28 election. The directive affects all FM radio stations broadcasting Radio Free Asia and Voice of America programming.

“I am extremely troubled by the Cambodian government’s actions today,” said Victor Ashe, a member of the BBG’s governing board and the vice chairman of the board overseeing RFA and who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Poland from 2004-2009.  “By denying its citizens access to unbiased news and information in this critical time it is undermining its own legitimacy and blatantly repudiating the very democracy it claims to espouse.  When I visited Cambodia in May, I met with leaders in the media and civil society.  I know first-hand how much they rely on the reporting of RFA and VOA.”

Radio Free Asia reports that at least 10 FM stations in Cambodia have dropped programming as a result, and e-mails from listeners are already starting to pour in. VOA’s Khmer Service says the government’s decision to pull VOA radio programs from FM stations has sparked immediate complaints on Facebook and other social media sites. Both broadcasters have issued statements condemning the ban.

Radio Free Asia will continue to provide programming through its websites andsocial media platforms as well as on shortwave radio. VOA will continue providing news and information broadcasts on direct-to-home satellite, web streaming and shortwave and AM radio broadcasts from outside Cambodia.  Because of the Cambodian government’s action, both broadcasters are now considering adding shortwave frequencies.

In a statement today, the U.S. State Department urged the Royal Government of Cambodia to reconsider the decision. “This directive is a serious infringement on freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.


The Broadcasting Board of Governors is an independent federal agency supervising all U.S. government-supported, civilian international broadcasting media, whose mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. BBG broadcasts reach an audience of 203 million in more than 100 countries and in 61 languages.  BBG broadcasting organizations include the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti).

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