Radio Silence in China: VOA Abandons the Airwaves Panel at the Heritage Foundation, May 25, 2011.
Radio Silence in China: VOA Abandons the Airwaves Panel at the Heritage Foundation, May 25, 2011.

On Valentine’s Day, the BBG announced to all the employees of the VOA’s China branch its proposal to eliminate VOA shortwave radio and TV broadcasts to China on October 1. By switching to Web-only operations, the BBG told us, $8 million would be saved. Forty-five journalists (38 Mandarin and seven Cantonese, 59 percent of the branch’s full-time employees) would lose their jobs.

While cutting $8 million from the China branch, there will be an increase of $9 million for BBG and IBB management; while eliminating 45 core journalistic positions, the BBG and IBB will have 48 more managers.

— Huchen Zhang, Senior Editor, Voice of America China Branch

Transcript from “Radio Silence in China: VOA Abandons the Airwaves” has been posted on the Heritage Foundation website. It includes the powerful statement from Huchen Zhang, Senior Editor, Voice of America China Branch.

BBG claims it is “the leader in circumventing Internet censorship.” The fact is, although the number of Internet users in China has increased exponentially, research results show that from 2007 to 2010, annual visits to VOA’s Chinese Web site remained virtually unchanged (except a short period in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics when the Chinese government temporarily lifted its ban on the Internet). Even though the BBG’s circumvention technology might work to a certain extent, the circumvention tools would endanger on-the-ground activists, as pointed out by many Internet-freedom groups.

Unlike surfing the Internet, the beauty of listening to shortwave radio broadcasting is that it cannot be detected. By the same token, any attempt to measure the exact listenership in China is bound to be futile, as we know the Chinese government has designated VOA as an “enemy station.”

Other panelists included Dan Dicky, CEO, Continental Electronics Corporation who pointed out that authoritarian regimes can block the Internet but they cannot completely block shortwave.

Here in the U.S., it is easy to believe that satellite and Internet delivery are ubiquitous. Because these methods of delivery appear less expensive we cling to the mistaken belief that they are also better. But in the regions of the world where our message will have the greatest impact, these so-called cheaper delivery systems are not accessible. Many areas of the world have no infrastructure to support these technologies. Shortwave radio, either in analog or digital formats, requires no special infrastructure. Shortwave does not require any special skills or training on the part of the listener. We have to recognize that even in countries that have ubiquitous Internet or satellite coverage our message can be easily interrupted by choke points established by the local government for that specific purpose. Shortwave broadcasts are much more robust.

The third panelist, David S. Jackson, a consultant for Burson-Marsteller and Turner and a former Voice of America director, had three main arguments against putting all of U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy eggs into the Internet basket:

The first is that a strategy of reducing VOA’s China outreach to a Web-only, new media platform makes VOA too vulnerable to censorship or blocking. Our broadcasters are very good at evading blocking efforts, but the Chinese are also very good at throwing up new ones. VOA’s broadcasting to China has always relied on a strategy of diversifying our outreach as much as possible so as to minimize the chances that we could be cut off entirely. A Web-only strategy would be high risk.

My second concern is that the plan to cut the Mandarin-speaking staff by more than half, as this proposal would do, will jeopardize VOA’s ability to cover China and to effectively compete with other media for audiences there.

Lastly, I worry about the message that will be sent by VOA halting all radio and TV broadcasts, especially at a time when China is launching an international television network to broadcast to the U.S. and other countries.

All panelists pointed out that keeping radio and satellite TV should not prevent VOA from continuing to expand Internet outreach. Huchen Zhang made a point that firing 45 journalists who specialize in human rights reporting will undermine any effort to provide substantive news to China through any platform.

By stressing the importance of shortwave radio and satellite TV broadcasts, I am not saying that we should not further develop our Internet capabilities. On the contrary, I believe we should strengthen our broadcasting and Web site at the same time. Our Web site is supported by all the content created by radio and TV journalists. To eliminate our radio and TV broadcasts and cut 59 percent of the staffers is like “taking away the firewood from under the cauldron.”

“Radio Silence in China: VOA Abandons the Airwaves” panel was on May 25, 2011 at the Heritage Foundation. The panel was moderated by Dr. Helle Dale, Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy.

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