BBG Watch Commentary
UPDATE: H.R. 4490, the bipartisan Royce – Engel United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 was passed unanimously Monday, July 28, 2014, by the House of Representatives in a voice vote. The bill now goes to the Senate, where a Senate version of the reform legislation is already in the works.
ALSO SEE: Chairman Royce Statement on Letter to President Obama Urging Support for Legislation to Reform U.S. International Broadcasting, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, July 28, 2014.
In a letter to President Obama, leaders representing human rights groups and ethnic communities in the United States, as well as former Voice of America (VOA) journalists, expressed their support for the bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, for the VOA Charter, and for the restoration of VOA’s effectiveness in reporting U.S. and international news. “According to its charter, the Voice of America (“VOA”) is charged with providing a ‘clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States.’ This mission is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War but it has been subjugated to leadership that has allowed for mission drift,” the letter says.
H.R. 4490 also aims to improve the effectiveness of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) surrogate media outlets by freeing them from the dysfunctional federal bureaucracy of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).
The letter to President Obama was signed by two former BBG members, as well as leaders of the union representing BBG federal employees. Other former BBG members sent to congressional committees separate statements in support of the bill.
In addition to strong bipartisan support in Congress, the reform bill has also received strong backing from leaders of human rights and U.S. ethnic communities which represent the backbone of constituent support for taxpayer funding for the Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN).
However, many current VOA and agency executives and some current and former employees associated mostly with the Voice of America English newsroom oppose the reform bill on the grounds that it could undermine VOA’s journalistic independence by assigning it more of a U.S. public diplomacy role, although the VOA Charter already has provisions on news independence as well as reporting on U.S. policies and both supporting and opposing opinions on these policies.
One VOA foreign correspondent expressed his opposition to the bill in “Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real” Los Angeles Times op-ed, in which he repeatedly referred to the bipartisan Royce-Engel legislation approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee as “the Royce bill” and warned members of Congress of trying to “remake it [VOA] into something fundamentally not American.” A former VOA English newsroom correspondent referred to “one-sided legislation that would so brutally eviscerate VOA as to bring it to the point of extinction.”
These fears, however, do not appear to be widely shared by rank and file VOA employees, especially among more than 40 VOA language services, their union leadership, and among many outside supporters of the Voice of America who see the proposed legislation as the only way of saving the organization from mismanagement and further decline. Some have proposed minor changes in the legislation that may be introduced in the Senate version of the bill to confirm journalistic integrity of VOA under its charter. The letter to President Obama expresses strong support for both management reforms and the VOA Charter.
Under its current management, the Voice of America is nowhere near its foreign competition when it comes to online audience engagement and social media, while IBB and VOA executives also cut back on direct radio broadcasts without properly notifying audiences and VOA program hosts. VOA English News Twitter has fewer Twitter followers (109K) than the UN Peacekeeping Force Twitter (132K) and nearly ten times fewer than the U.S. State Department Twitter (998K) and more than six times fewer followers than Russia’s RT Twitter (706K).
On YouTube, RT English has over one million, three hundred thousand subscribers and over one billion, two hundred million views. VOA English News YouTube has only 36 thousand subscribers and 35.8 million views.
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
July 27, 2014
Ukraine and its regional neighbors are threatened by an all out offensive from Russia’s robust propaganda machine. Unfortunately, Putin’s campaign of misinformation is having the desired effect: stoking sectarian violence, undermining stable democratic governments, and creating the pretext for Russian invasion. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (“BBG”) which oversees U.S. international broadcasting was established to be our country’s first defense in wars of information but the BBG is broken – or as Secretary Clinton stated, “defunct”. Thankfully, legislation to reform the BBG is moving in the House of Representatives. The bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, sponsored by Chairman Royce and Ranking Member Engel, proposes important reforms to address the BBG’s highly dysfunctional management structure, clarify the mission of our international broadcasters, and empower our journalists. We urge you to sign H.R. 4490 into law when it reaches your desk.
For years, the failure to improve the BBG has allowed anti-democratic states and non-state actors to effectively use propaganda to undermine our national security objectives overseas. As Hillary Clinton testified to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the BBG “is practically a defunct agency in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and need to get back into it.”
Clarifying the BBG mission is critical. According to its charter, the Voice of America (“VOA”) is charged with providing a “clear and effective presentation of the policies of the United States.” This mission is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War but it has been subjugated to leadership that has allowed for mission drift. We still need the Voice of America to report on the broad foreign policies of the United States and present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies; we need the VOA to expand and strengthen the relationship between the people and Government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.
We support H.R. 4490’s proposal to dissolve the current BBG structure and consolidate its component entities based on mission and workforce structure. H.R. 4490 retains the federal elements of the BBG, including the VOA and OCB, but makes important management reforms by identifying a Chief Executive Officer to oversee the day-to-day operations. This federal organization is rebranded, jettisoning the “BBG” name that has become synonymous with government dysfunction and inefficiency.
Non-federal international broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, will be consolidated into a single organization with a common leadership and advisory board. This consolidated organization will be modeled after the National Endowment for Democracy and have the mission to provide uncensored local and regional news and information to people in closed societies. This division will reduce overlap and ensure the complementary yet distinct missions of our international broadcasters are being fulfilled.
Unlike the post-war media climate of the 1940’s, today’s media landscape is highly competitive, necessitating a more aggressive U.S. international broadcasting posture. Adaptation will require a more effective and efficient use of finite resources which can only be achieved with significant reforms to the BBG’s management and mission clarification. The United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 draws upon the recommendations put forward by 2011-2012 BBG Board and we urge you to support this much needed reform effort.
You have stated that “we need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills, a battle of ideas.” Today we are engaged in a battle of ideas with state and non-state media that U.S. international broadcasting is an important element of our national power that can no longer be neglected and allowed to decline. We, the undersigned, urge you to support the forthcoming legislation with resolve and urgency. We lend our names in our personal, not institutional, capacity.
Blanquita Cullum, broadcaster, former Broadcasting Board of Governors member
Ambassador (retired) Victor Ashe, former Broadcasting Board of Governors member
Timothy Shamble, President of AFGE Local 1812
Robert Reilly, former Voice of America Director
Harry Wu, China’s labor camps survivor, Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation
John Lenczowski, President and Professor at The Institute of World Politics and as former Director of European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council
Rev. Ruben Diaz, New York State Senator
Mark Gjonaj, New York State Assemblyman
Karl Altau, Managing Director, Joint Baltic American National Committee, Inc. Representing:
Estonian American National Council, Inc.
American Latvian Association, Inc.
Lithuanian American Council, Inc.
Irena Lasota, President of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE), journalist
Janusz Bugajski, Senior Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis, Washington DC
Ann Noonan, Executive Director of Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting
Ted Lipien, journalist and author, former Voice of America Acting Associate Director, former VOA Eurasia Division Director, former IBB Eurasia Marketing Director, former VOA Polish Service Chief
Ethan Gutmann, journalist and author, Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting Advisory Board
Manny Papir, human rights activist, former Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Guliani
Jing Zhang, journalist, President of Women’s Rights in China
Liqun Chen, Women’s Rights in China
Justin C. Yu, journalist, community leader
Reggie Littlejohn, President of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers
Enver Safir, former VOA Russian Service Moscow Correspondent, former Director of IBB’s Prague Office of Marketing and Program Placement
Marek Walicki, journalist, formerly with Radio Free Europe and Voice of America
John T. Murphy, former Director Voice of America Eurasia Division, former IBB Global Marketing Director, former Senior Adviser IBB Office of Engineering
Vello Ederma, retired VOA European News Chief and European Division Deputy Chief
Marina Oeltjen, former Voice of America Russian Service Chief
Marie Ciliberti, former Voice of America broadcaster
Jaroslaw Martyniuk, formerly Researcher with InterMedia and an active member of the Ukrainian Diaspora in Chicago and Washington D.C.
Additional signatures are being collected.
We strongly support all three provisions of the Voice of America Charter and restoration of VOA newsroom’s and VOA language services’ ability to report U.S. and international news.
To protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization’s mission, the VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and later signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford.
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)