BBG Watch Commentary

Helle C. Dale, the Heritage Foundation’s senior fellow in public diplomacy, has written a commentary on the 2014 Omnibus Bill appropriation for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal board and the agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting.

Dale refers to examples of questionable programming at the Voice of America Persian Service and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). She also focuses on mismanagement within the BBG’s bureaucracy, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), as described in a recent independent financial audit ordered by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Her commentary was published in the Heritage Foundation’s The Daily Signal.

Helle Dale
Helle Dale

U.S. International Broadcasting in the Omnibus

By Helle Dale

It is a measure of the importance attached by Congress to U.S. international broadcasting in the battle space of ideas that the 2014 Omnibus Bill, which passed the House yesterday, not only funds fully the agency that oversees it — the Broadcasting Board of Governors — but adds some $6 million on top of its funding request. The BBG requested $721.26 million, but the omnibus increases that to $726.567 million.

In so far as the BBG has announced some highly questionable cuts in broadcasts and programing, citing budgetary constraints, the added funding should relieve some of that pressure. English Worldwide, for instance, is marked for elimination by the BBG, despite the fact that it is an important vehicle for developing world listeners to learn English. Also slated for elimination is short-wave broadcasting, which the Board has been shrinking for years in favor of digital media, despite the fact that short-wave radio remains an important medium in many parts of the world.

Particularly important will be the funding for anti-censorship measures, which challenge government controls of countries such as China, Cuba and North Korea, and funding for counter-terrorism communication, for which Congress appropriated $10.7 million, a critical weapon in the ideological war against ISIS and other radical Islamist groups.

Interestingly, the legislation includes closer supervision of the programming of the BBG entities. It states “that the BBG shall notify the Committees on Appropriations within 15 days of any determination by the Board that any of its broadcast entities, including its grantee organizations, provides an open platform for international terrorists or those who support international terrorism.”

This is a clear stab at the Persian News Network of Voice of America and the Middle East News Agency [Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) – Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV], a grantee broadcasting entity under the BBG. Invoking “journalist fairness,” these broadcasters have at times seen fit to interview “the other side” in the war on terror — the families of suicide bombers, for instance. Understandably, it invariably has members of Congress up in arms.

It is imperative, clearly, that oversight of broadcasting is vigilant. According to an “Independent Auditor Report of “Internal Control over Financial Reporting” at the BBG by the firm Kearney and Company in Alexandria, Va., BBG accounting procedures exhibit “material weakness” and “significant deficiency.” These findings in the 2014 audit remain unchanged from the 2013 audit. It can hardly surprise anyone that the BBG is constantly at the center of controversy and complaints about its performance.

Among the findings of the auditors:

A lack of effective grantee oversight increases the risk of waste, fraud and abuse of Federal funds. (“Grantees” being broadcasting entities funded but not run by the BBG.)

BBG does not have current, comprehensive and clear policies or procedures to ensure that property is effectively managed and reported.

In FY 2014, BBG continued to lack suffient reliable funds control to ensure that budgetary transactions were properly recorded, monitored, and reported.

In general, OIG found that BBG had not implemented effective standards, policies, processes and procedures over its information security program . . . .

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at the publication of the auditor’s report,

The independent audit of the Broadcasting Board of Governors financial statements highlights the deep structural problems of the agency. Unfortunately, this audit comes after the Government Accountability Office and Office of the Inspector General reported in January that the BBG suffers from a severely dysfunctional organizational structure and a ‘flawed legislative structure and acute internal dissension’. In testimony before the Committee, former Secretary Clinton called the BBG ‘defunct’.

We cannot allow the BBG to continue limping along. Russian propaganda is dominating the information space in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe; we need U.S. international broadcasters to be effective – more now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The BBG must be restructured to meet the security challenges we face worldwide.

Great demands are being placed on U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting in today’s international environment. Strong congressional oversight has to go hand in hand with substantial appropriations.

READ ORIGINAL COMMENTARY BY HELLE DALE: U.S. International Broadcasting in the Omnibus, Helle Dale, The Daily Signal, December 12, 2014.