RIF REDUX: PURGING OF THE VOICE OF AMERICA BY THE BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS AND ITS EXECUTIVE STAFF
by Quo Vadis (Marie Ciliberti)
The recent and most devastating Reduction-in-Force proposed by Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in the FY-2013 budget is the latest in a series of frontal attacks against the basic mission of the Voice of America. For FY-2013, the BBG has stepped up the pace of these annual onslaughts proposing to cut almost 200 broadcasters from an ever-shrinking staff, sapping the strength of America’s voice to the world and draining what’s left of the morale of its broadcasters. At the same time, the BBG is busy feathering its bureaucratic nest with the number of past, present and future management positions exploding.
Time and again, over the last few years, the BBG, on the recommendation of its Executive Staff, has marched in lockstep up to Capitol Hill with its proposals to cut important and vital VOA language broadcasts, including English. Only through the direct intervention of the Congress have VOA broadcasts been spared. But like a toddler in a perpetual temper tantrum, the Executive Staff of the BBG persists in its relentless anti-VOA animus trying to prove to Congress that they, like the Enron folk, are “the smartest guys in the room.”
Let’s take a swing through the past starting with 2007, when the BBG proposed closing a number of services including Cantonese, Croatian, Georgian, Greek, Thai and Uzbek for FY2008. In addition, the BBG planned to cut 14 hours of radio broadcasts in English, plus ending radio in Hindi, Russian and to the Balkan countries. Reductions were proposed for broadcasts in Portuguese to Africa, Tibetan, and Ukrainian.
Nothing doing, said the Congress. The decision was helped along by an unprecedented bipartisan letter to save the VOA in March 2007 signed by eleven (11) former Voice of America Directors who served over the years under both Republican and Democratic administrations. (see letter at link: http://www.publicdiplomacy.org/78.htm)
Fast forward to the final version of the appropriations bill for FY2008, in which the Congress overturned the BBG’s slash-and-burn plan with the following language:
Language Service Reductions.- The Committee recommendation supports continuing broadcasting which the administration proposed for language service reductions in fiscal year 2008, particularly Albanian, Bosnian, Cantonese, Croatian, English, Georgian, Kazakh, Macedonian, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, South Slavic, Tibetan, Thai, Ukrainian, and Uzbek.
True to form, the powers that be at the BBG paid no attention to the will of the Congress which picks up the tab for U.S. broadcasting and proceeded to cut radio/TV broadcasts to Russia in July of ’08, just three weeks before Russian troops invaded Georgia. The VOA Georgian Service narrowly escaped the same fate thanks to the efforts of a Congresswoman who headed the Congressional Georgian Caucus.
Even though rebuffed in the appropriations for FY2008, the Executive Staff of the BBG was at it again the very next year. In the FY 2009 budget process, the BBG requested implementation of the FY2008 cuts which the Congress prevented them from doing the previous year.
“Nay,” said the Congress in a bipartisan vote.
The House version of the 2009 appropriations bill included the following language:
The Committee recognizes VOA for its essential contribution to United States public diplomacy. The VOA’s English-language radio programming is especially important since it provides accurate, objective and comprehensive news to a potential English-speaking audience of 1.6 billion people worldwide.
The U.S. Senate concurred. In its appropriations bill for FY 2009, the Senate wrote:
The Committee provides $693 million for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an increase of $23 million above the FY08 enacted level and $ 6 million below the request. The bill provides funding for broadcasting in languages which the Administration proposed to eliminate in FY09, such as Russian, Uzbek, Tibetan and to the Balkans, where freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary.
Same old, same old reduction proposals for FY 2010, but this time less drastic: Croatian, Greek (a perennial target) and Hindi. In spite of the outcry from listeners in India, BBG executives closed down VOA Hindi radio/TV broadcasts, arguing that VOA English could substitute for those language broadcasts. Reductions were also proposed to Radio/TV Marti newscasts and on that basis, the BBG conducted an illegal RIF of 23 employees which was overturned in 2011 by an Arbitrator. Since the Agency has appealed the Arbitrator’s decision on restoring the fired Marti employees, that situation is still in limbo.
Interestingly enough, although the availability of VOA English broadcasts was used as a justification to close VOA Hindi in 2010, the BBG proposes to cut VOA English programs to the area in FY2013.
It didn’t get any better in 2011 with the BBG’s proposed reductions for FY2012. A huge battle erupted last year to save the VOA China radio/TV programming in Mandarin and Cantonese as the BBG proposed closing down the radio/TV broadcasts and transferring their functions to the Internet, which is totally blocked in China and policed by a 50,000+ person cyber-army.
In a decisive maneuver, an amendment was proposed for the FY2012 House Appropriations bill by Congressman Rohrabacher and approved unanimously in a bipartisan vote by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee:.
Limitation: Of the funds authorized to be appropriated to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, 13.76 million is authorized to be appropriated only for Voice of America Mandarin and Cantonese language radio and satellite television broadcasting. Such funds may not be used for any other purpose.
Although the U.S. Congress once again came to the rescue of VOA, the victory was bittersweet because the BBG, like the Energizer Bunny, was cranking up for the legendary Big One in its FY2013 budget plans with the most sweeping Reduction-in-Force ever proposed for VOA.
Battle-weary broadcasting employees are still determined to fight to the end whatever that end may be and have turned again to the Congress to petition for redress of grievance.
Congressional staffers often ask VOA employees why they think that the BBG is so intent on cutting the Voice of America. The only answer seems to be that the BBG and its Executive Staff must truly believe that they, and not the Congress or VOA broadcasters, are “the smartest guys in the room.” Exactly what the executives at Enron in their corporate arrogance thought as well.