BBG Watch Commentary

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At the open board meeting in Washington Thursday, Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Jeff Shell welcomed to the board three new members: Ambassador Karen Kornbluh and Michael Kempner, who were in attendance, and Dr. Leon Aron. Shell thanked departing Governor Michael Meehan, calling him the “glue between the last board and this one” and noting his “incredible impact and dedicated work” on issues from budget to strategy to Internet Anti-censorship. Meehan has served on the board since 2010.

Ann Noonan
Ann Noonan

Three members of the public spoke at the meeting. Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – who spoke first also thanked Michael Meehan for his service and said that he will be missed. Meehan, together with former BBG members Ambassador Victor Ashe and Susan McCue, is credited with saving Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) from a management crisis in 2012. He also became a strong advocate for radical reforms at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America (VOA). CUSIB believes that the departure of Michael Meehan is a great loss for the BBG, but fortunately all three new board members bring rich experience, talent and commitment to public service. Ann Noonan welcomed Ambassador Karen Kornbluh, Michael Kempner and Dr. Leon Aron.

In her presentation to the BBG board, Noonan expressed concern about the plight of the employees of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting who were illegally fired 5 years ago. Noonan also spoke about “the very disturbing presentation” Voice of America Director David Ensor “made to ridicule the efforts of former BBG Governor Ambassador Victor Ashe, former BBG employees (former senior Voice of America English correspondents), as well as a Jehovah’s Witnesses publication.”

CUSIB EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR ANN NOONAN “It is unconscionable for any federal employee to demonstrate religious intolerance in a punchline and expect his underlings to enjoy the jab. A holiday party is no excuse. There are tasteful ways of making fun — usually at oneself if you are a VOA Director — and this was NOT one of those times. It’s extraordinary for the Director of a U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcaster to mock an independent U.S. media outlet and independent U.S. journalists. It’s so ugly for anyone who stands for freedom to mock American public input and public opinion.”

Noonan expressed appreciation for “the efforts of Radio Free Asia Cantonese Service for their exclusive interview about Chen Qi Tang.” Noonan vowed to “continue to advocate for more funding for surrogate broadcasting.”

Voice of America reporter Carolyn PresuttiCarolyn Presutti, an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters, defended the concept of journalistic freedom for VOA reporters and the inclusion of the VOA Charter provisions in any reform legislation regarding the BBG that may be passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President. She also made several suggestions to improve transparency at BBG meetings, such as having an open questions session. Presutti also expressed hope shared by many VOA journalists that Andy Lack, designated to be BBG’s CEO, will soon come on board. He is waiting for paperwork to be processed.

Alan Heil at Oct 2014 BBG MeetingFormer Voice of America Program Director Alan Heil extended holiday greetings and read his proposal for a new mission statement for the BBG which stressed journalistic integrity, U.S. focus, modern program delivery methods, addressing humanitarian needs and interaction with audiences.

At the open board meeting on Thursday, board members examined the function, structure and activities of the International Broadcasting Bureau. The IBB manages the transmission, distribution, digital media development, marketing, and support services for the U.S. international media networks under the BBG. It has grown considerably over the last several years while numerous broadcasts and news programs have been eliminated or reduced. The previous IBB management team was blamed in several Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reports and audits for numerous financial and inventory monitoring deficiencies, as well as questionable contracting practices that violated U.S. laws and regulations. The federal part of the agency has record low employee moral among government agencies of similar size and recently registered in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey the largest further drop in employee morale.

BBG Chair Jeff Shell thanked the members of the new interim management team, Suzie Carroll, Rob Bole and André Mendes. They are recent appointees. “It is rare to find three people who can not only work well together, but who can also make change happen. This group has exceeded expectations; they are impressive public servants,” Shell said.

Shell spoke privately with CUSIB Executive Director Ann Noonan, as did BBG CEO nominee Andy Lack who was present at the meeting in a private capacity. His appointment has not yet been finalized, but there expectation that he will start working soon. Lack had met before with CUSIB members, including Ann Noonan and Ted Lipien.

Noonan also spoke privately during a break in the board meeting with BBG members Kenneth Weinstein and Michael Kempner and with Office of Cuba Broadcasting Director Carlos García Pérez. CUSIB is trying to get illegally RIFed Radio and TV Marti journalists reinstated as soon as possible. Ann Noonan also spoke about the need for quick settlement of overseas discrimination lawsuits brought against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) by its former foreign employees in Prague, an Armenian citizen Anna Karapetian, and a Croatian national, Snjezana Pelivan. CUSIB is urging BBG to improve management culture, arguing that better managers and better treatment of employees will result in better programs and better focus on the media freedom mission of the agency which is funded by U.S. taxpayers.

FROM BBG PRESS RELEASE: BBG Welcomes New Members, Examines IBB

“Ukrainian Ambassador Oleksandr Motsyk joined the meeting to express his thanks to the VOA Ukrainian service for their coverage of Ukraine and to present VOA’s Myroslava Gongadze with the Order of Princess Olga, a Ukrainian civil decoration bestowed on “women of outstanding personal merit.”

Office of Cuba Broadcasting Director Carlos García Pérez updated the board on the Martí’s coverage of the historic normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Shell noted the latest in a series of threats against BBG journalists including the pre-trial detention of Khadija Ismayilova who works with RFE/RL, an attack on Alhurra reporter Omar Al Obaidi and his cameraman in Iraq, detention of the brothers of Shohret Hoshur, a reporter for RFA’s Uyhgur service, and the ongoing lack of news of Alhurra’s Bashar Fahmi who was last seen or heard from during a reporting trip in Aleppo, Syria, more than two years ago.”