BBG Watch Commentary

“[B]lind activist Chen Guangcheng … the youngest of five brothers, began grade school at age 17. He was inspired to tackle injustice by listening to U.S. broadcasts on Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Chen took up the cause that would take his freedom: thousands of victims of forced sterilizations and abortions under China’s draconian family planning policies.” — Calum MacLeod and Oren Dorell reporting for USA Today, May 3, 2012.

Chen Guangcheng with his family

There is at least one person in China who does not want to agree with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives. The blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng listens to Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin radio broadcasts in his semi-imprisonment at a government hospital in Beijing.

When the Voice of America Chinese reporter Yibing Feng interviewed Chen Guangcheng on his cell phone Monday, Chen said he just listened to VOA Mandarin live radio news show Sunday night (Beijing time) and thanked the Voice of America Chinese broadcasters for reporting on his plight.

When the reporter asked him how he managed to listen to VOA, he said mysteriously: “There’s always a way.”

How about that?! If Chen can listen to VOA Mandarin in his Beijing hospital, who else can’t?

But according to BBG and IBB officials almost no one in China does listen to VOA radio and these broadcasts should be eliminated. Needless to say, the BBG Public Affairs office did not issue a press release about Chen Guangcheng listening to VOA Mandarin radio broadcast.

Why not?

On the same day Chen was listening to VOA evening radio program, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and International Broadcasting Bureau executives have replaced live VOA Mandarin morning radio broadcasts with repeat programming without even a five minute live newscast. This was done silently, with no press release to announce the change.

When asked about it, the International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard M. Lobo said that this change will have no impact for radio listeners and does not violate the Congressional directive to maintain VOA radio and television to China, know as the Rohrabacher Amendment.

According to Mr. Lobo, everything is the same despite the fact that there is now a 17 hour VOA Mandarin radio news silence in China. Some BBG members said privately that they were not briefed by Mr. Lobo about this change.

IBB executives tell Congressional staffers that the change they made to VOA Mandarin radio is in any case irrelevant because there is no shortwave radio listening in China. To prove their point, they play recordings that show heavy jamming of VOA radio by the Chinese authorities. And yet, Chen Guangcheng is able to listen to VOA Mandarin broadcast in Beijing where the jamming of VOA shortwave transmissions is presumably the most intense. It is easier to listen to VOA shortwave radio in rural China, where many of Chen Guangcheng’s supporters live and where he was kept under house arrest until his recent escape.

Earlier, the same executives working for Mr. Lobo, who was appointed to his position by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate, have done everything possible to terminate VOA Mandarin and Cantonese broadcasts and to fire several dozen VOA Chinese journalists and broadcasters. They insisted that using only the Internet to deliver VOA news to China is quite sufficient and can be done with low-paid contractors. This, despite the fact that the Chinese authorities effectively censor the Internet and block VOA and other Western news websites.

Meanwhile, these executives gave themselves bonuses, which were approved by Mr. Lobo, created new bureaucratic positions and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for foreign and domestic travels. The elimination of broadcasts to China and the firing of VOA journalists would have allowed them to continue their extravagant spending on themselves.

These IBB bureaucrats nearly succeeded in silencing Voice of America in China. At first BBG members agreed with them. But the Congress did not. Their plan was blocked by bipartisan votes in Congressional committees.

Later, the same executives working for Mr. Lobo tried again to carry out their plan by targeting for elimination VOA radio to Tibet and the VOA Cantonese Service, but this time BBG members changed their mind and decided to keep VOA broadcasts to China and Tibet.

Now, these bureaucrats will pretend that live radio news to China in the morning is not important for a news organization like VOA. They will also pretend that the VOA interview with Chen Guangcheng did not happen. It was not worth issuing a press release. The BBG also did not issue a press release when Radio Free Asia (RFE) interviewed Chen. And these BBG and IBB staffers will definitely try to ignore and hide Chen’s statement that he listens to VOA Mandarin radio.

The BBG did not pick up on the USA Today report that Chen Guangcheng “was inspired to tackle injustice by listening to U.S. broadcasts on Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.” They had also ignored an earlier National Public Radio (NPR) report that Tibetan Buddhist monks secretly listen to VOA Tibetan radio programs on shortwave. The BBG Public Relations Office did not have a press release on this NPR story either. At that time Mr. Lobo’s team was trying hard to silence VOA radio to Tibet and to eliminate the VOA Cantonese Service with all its broadcasts and Internet news.

The problem with BBG and IBB executives is that in addition to trying to expand their bureaucratic control over the Board members and the organization, they believe their own faulty research. According to their research, almost no one in China admits to listening to shortwave radio. They believe it partly because many of them may not know any better and partly because it suits their bureaucratic goals, but the key officials do know that this research is worthless.

Any sensible person can grasp that people in China have a very good reason for not volunteering information about their radio listening habits. But Chen Guangcheng was not afraid to say that he is a listener to the Voice of America Mandarin radio news. At this point he has very little to lose.

Is there much doubt that his supporters and other human rights activists in China also listen to VOA radio? We don’t think there is. They may not want to share this information with local Chinese contractors working for Gallup, but they do listen. Listening to radio is safe. Accessing the VOA Chinese website in China is nearly impossible and carries a risk of being discovered by the Chinese cyber police. But this is what BBG and IBB executives want the people in China to do: to use the Internet.

VOA radio plays a vital role in supporting freedom of expression and democracy in China because it is inexpensive, accessible despite the jamming, and safe. These broadcasts also explain US policies and offer a variety of views and opinions, including those critical of the Obama Administration’s handling of the Chen Guangcheng’s case.

It strikes us as odd that officials working for IBB Director Richard Lobo are doing everything in their power to silence VOA radio news to China. BBG members need to ask Mr. Lobo for answers and the Congress needs to exercise more oversight for as long as the bipartisan, part-time Board is not able to control its own bureaucrats.

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