BBG Watch Commentary
At the April 11 meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in Washington, DC, Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) Executive Director Ann Noonan spoke about urgent need for management reforms at Voice of America (VOA) and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).
On the same day Ann Noonan spoke about management problems at Voice of America, VOA English news website and websites of most of VOA’s language services failed to report on the statement of the State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, in which she condemned the Russian Government’s recent decision to block continued Voice of America broadcasting in Russia and other restrictions on free media and free speech. (Last check — seven hours after the State Department press briefing — only VOA Russian Service was reporting on the statement.)
Sources told BBG Watch that CUSIB strongly supports Chairman Shell’s and the BBG board’s efforts to reform the agency and has urged the BBG to move quickly to hire a CEO who has a good understanding of the organization and its mission, but also possesses good political and people skills, with strong ability to direct and inspire employees and managers.
Thank you Mr. Chair.
My name is Ann Noonan, and I am the Executive Director of the Committee for US International Broadcasting. CUSIB is an all volunteer organization.
A recent OIG report shows that Voice of America reaches weekly only 0.1% of Russians online. Giving up VOA radio and satellite television to Russia in 2008 was a mistake, especially since an AM (medium wave) transmitter in Lithuania could have been used for both VOA and Radio Liberty to broadcast to audiences, including those with car radios, in European Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
CUSIB does not believe for a moment that BBG can only have and can only afford one program delivery strategy. It should be a truly multi-media strategy, combining Internet, radio, and in some cases satellite television.
The main reason that I am here today, however, is to discuss the BBG’s proposed budget cuts, and their impact on the operations and the missions of the various entities that exist under the umbrella of the BBG.
CUSIB is relieved that during this 25th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre there are no projected cuts in the BBG’s 2015 budget for Chinese and Tibetan services, as there had been in previous years. We applaud RFA’s decision to use some of its very limited resources to host a weekly program titled “Letters from Prison.” This program will be invaluable.
I also want to mention that the news about the proposed elimination of Voice of America’s Albanian and other services to the Balkans in the BBG’s 2015 budget brought an immediate response from leaders in the Albanian community, especially New York State Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj. I was cc’d in a letter from Assemblyman Gjonaj, directed to BBG Chair Jeff Shell stating his grave concerns about the elimination of these VOA services. His letter says:
“The root of some of the past bloody conflicts in the Balkans can be attributed to disinformation or suppression of information.” His letter states that Russia has been manipulating news in the Balkans. “In order to protect and further the interests of the United States, Voice of America should continue to be a source of information for all the people in this region,” New York Assemblyman Gjonaj wrote.
I’d also like to call your attention to a VOA production for TV stations in Pakistan – of a zombie video — showing a blood-thirsty Uncle Sam zombie character. Pakistan is a troubled area of the world, and videos like this one demean and belittle VOA and its mission. We do not fault the actual journalists who obviously received little guidance or direction, but we do believe that in a well-run organization this would never have happened.
CUSIB believes that top VOA and IBB executives all share responsibility for this farce and should not blame those below them, as they have a habit of doing. We are disturbed that experienced and talented VOA correspondents are leaving because they feel abused. We are hopeful that when a CEO is finally hired by the BBG Board — someone with good political sense who knows and understands the organization and its mission — problems of this magnitude may no longer exist.
CUSIB remains troubled by VOA’s online remapping of Crimea to be officially located outside of Ukraine. We’re relieved, that after a media report – VOA corrected its controversial map. Again, this incident demonstrates the need for much better management.
We are also troubled by IBB’s practice of including known U.S. domestic Internet traffic in its online audience reach metrics. Since in some cases, U.S. online traffic can be over 60%, this practice misleads BBG members, members of Congress, and U.S. public.
But what I hope and pray the most is that my appearance here today will prompt a further review by the Board that would result in curtailing of management costs and preserving the actual news reporting and broadcasting parts of the budget.
Why should the largest portion — 34% of the BBG Budget — be devoted to support services, bureaucracy and management and IBB should increase its staff by 37% in the last seven years while proposing cuts and reducing numerous programs?
There is something wrong with this picture. Top heavy management costs strip resources from the ground troops of journalists who deliver the information that is mandated by the mission of all of the BBG news services.
We will continue to provide our input as taxpayers, concerned citizens, journalists, and media freedom advocates — and if we receive the information we need and requested — we will ask Congress for more money for BBG’s pure and noble mission.