BBG Watch Commentary
In an emailed farewell note, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara D. Sonenshine said that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, “is in urgent need of reform and new approaches to the entities,” which include the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting ( OCB – Radio and TV Marti).
“BBG is in urgent need of reform and new approaches to the entities. I have worked hard as the Secretary of State’s representative to the Board to suggest commission, board replacements, and other reform approaches.”
Tara Sonenshine represented the Secretary of State at BBG meetings. The Secretary of State is an ex officio member of the BBG board. Shortly before leaving office of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said that BBG was “defunct.” She would not have said that without input from Sonenshine who was believed to be disappointed and frustrated with the bureaucracy running the agency.
Working closely with current BBG members, Victor Ashe, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, Sonenshine helped to solve a crisis at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) caused by the firing of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia in September 2012.
Efforts by Sonenshine and the three currently remaining BBG members led to a management change at RFE/RL in January 2013 and rehiring of some of the fired journalists.
The crisis at Radio Liberty in Russia was ignored by BBG’s managerial staff at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) led by IBB Director Richard Lobo and Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, which may explain Sonenshine’s comment about urgent need for reform at the BBG.
Under the current legal and administrative setup, BBG members are practically unable to remove IBB officials or even to order them to take specific actions if these officials disagree with them. Despite their poor performance over the years, as shown in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and multiple complaints from employees and independent experts, IBB executives have stayed in their positions.
The firing of Radio Liberty journalists became a major public diplomacy disaster for the United States in Russia, with Mikhail Gorbachev, human rights leader Lyudmila Alexeeva and others expressing their strong disapproval of the actions taken by the former American management of the station. IBB executive staff kept the news of a growing controversy hidden from BBG members, sources told BBG Watch, and may have assisted the former RFE/RL management team.
With the departure of Tara Sonenshine, the BBG will see its 5th representative from the State Department in in three years. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton never attended any BBG meetings, but she met with BBG members and IBB executives.
A Farewell Note from Under Secretary Sonenshine Tara D. Sonenshine, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs