Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi

BBG Watch has learned that the Democratic Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D – CA), is concerned that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) plan to merge BBG’s grantee broadcasters — Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) and its Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV — will undermine their independence and effectiveness and would violate Congressional intent. Her office has asked for a briefing on this issue from BBG officials that was to be held Wednesday on Capitol Hill but was later postponed due to the inability of some participants to attend and will be rescheduled.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren
Zoe Lofgren

Similar concerns about the proposed merger were expressed in a letter to the BBG by another Democratic member of Congress from California, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren.

Both Pelosi and Lofgren represent California districts with a significant number of Asian Americans who support pro-human rights, uncensored reporting by Radio Free Asia. Rep. Lofgren is the chair of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation and the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam. She indicated that she is particularly concerned about the negative impact of the proposed consolidation on Radio Free Asia, which “provides a valuable service to the people of Vietnam who are in a desperate need of uncensored news reporting.”

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher at VOA to China 70th Anniversary Reception in Dec. 2011
Dana Rohrabacher

Their Republican colleague from California, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R – CA) is also on the record opposing many of the BBG’s recent plans, including their proposal to terminate Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts to Tibet and China and to reduce some of RFA radio transmissions. In one of his letters to the BBG, Rohrabacher wrote:

“…I am at a loss to understand the BBG’s drive to constantly cut broadcasting despite increased appropriations from the Congress and despite clear bipartisan congressional intent in the case of China. The BBG has shown itself to be opaque in its decision making and incredibility tone deaf to Congressional priorities.”

Due to Congressman Rohrabacher’s intervention and the support he received from his Republican and Democratic colleagues, many of the program cutting proposals advanced by BBG executive staffers and initially approved by the majority of BBG members were later blocked in Congressional committees or voted down by the board after a storm of public protests.

The independent and nonpartisan Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB — released the statement expressing deep concern that the Broadcasting Board of Governors does not respond to oversight by the U.S. Congress and the legitimate concerns of its own employees.

The proposed merger is adamantly opposed by the vast majority of top managers and rank-and-file journalists at RFA, RFE/RL, and MBN. It is strongly supported, however, by some BBG members and their their senior executive staff who see it as a way of increasing central control over the grantee broadcasters. The heads of RFA and MBN, Libby Liu and Brian Conniff, are on record expressing strong reservations about the merger plan. See: Radio Free Asia managers and employees, other BBG broadcasters, oppose merger plan

The president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Steven Korn is the only grantee head supporting the merger. He is a recent hire and, unlike Conniff and Liu, has no government or relevant regional expertise. His most recent decision to announce a mass firing of experienced journalists working at the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau has created a major controversy in Russia and brought criticism from human rights and media freedom activists. Critics fear that putting bureaucrats and non-experts in administrative control of the grantee broadcasters will damage the reputation and effectiveness of RFA and MBN as it already has at RFE/RL, where senior executives with journalistic and regional experience were replaced by Mr. Korn by non-journalists and marketing specialists. Mr. Korn is a former CNN executive.

Among BBG members, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, a Republican, is one of the strongest opponents of the merger plan and also opposes the proposal to create a CEO position fearing that eliminating the requirement for a Senate confirmation of the CEO candidate will weaken Congressional oversight. BBG Democratic member Michael Meehan is also opposed to the merger proposal.

BBG Democratic member Susan McCue has been lobbying on Capitol Hill for the merger on the assumption that it would save some money which could be then applied to support more programming. But in response to concerns from critics that any savings, which are questionable and appear minor, would not be worth the risk of destroying Congressionally-mandated independence of Radio Free Asia and other grantee broadcasters, Ms. McCue is now calling the merger administrative streamlining.

BBG Watch has learned that BBG staffers selected to provide a briefing for Jonathan Stivers,
Senior Advisor to Nancy Pelosi, do not include any critics of the merger plan. Mr. Stivers confirmed that Congresswoman Pelosi is concerned about the merger plan and that it was her office that called for a briefing from BBG officials. They report to the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) director Richard Lobo, a presidential appointee, and his deputy Jeff Trimble. Some, like Bruce Sherman, Director of the BBG’s Office of Strategy and Development, are known to be enthusiastic supporters of the merger. The BBG’s Deputy General Counsel, Paul Kollmer-Dorsey, also expected to participate in the briefing, has repeatedly clashed with Ambassador Ashe on a number of transparency and accountability issues, including the non-disclosure resolution, which Ashe believes limits his ability to communicate with members of Congress, restricts whistleblowing and feedback from employees, and undermines Congressional scrutiny. Susan McCue is also expected to participate in the briefing along with former Congressional staffer Lynne Weil who is now Director of Communications and External Affairs, and Suzie Carroll, the BBG’s Congressional Coordinator.

BBG Watch believes that Governor McCue has good intentions in hoping to save money for programming, but we hope that she will listen to professional journalists, area experts, media freedom groups, and members of Congress from both parties who agree that, as far as the independent grantee broadcasters are concerned, the proposed administrative merger or even streamlining would place them under central bureaucratic control that the Congress tried to protect them from in the first place. “These important taxpayer-funded news organizations and public diplomacy tools of America’s support for democracy could end up just like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Russia — ridiculed by human rights activists, embroiled in scandal, and its effectiveness destroyed,” a U.S. media freedom expert told BBG Watch.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has been consistently rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee opinion surveys as the worst place to work and one of the worst-managed agencies in the entire federal government. BBG Watch sees the proposed merger as an attempt by the BBG executive staff to establish central bureaucratic control over the surrogate broadcasters that the U.S. Congress wanted to remain independent. We hope that Congresswoman Pelosi and her staff will also have a chance to talk to numerous critics of the merger and CEO proposal.