BBG Watch Commentary
Well-managed on a small budget, Radio Free Asia (RFA) has been doing an excellent job of challenging censorship and serving as a surrogate media outlet to countries without free media, as it is required to do by U.S. legislation. RFA is funded by American taxpayers through the U.S. Congress and overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal entity with a bipartisan board. RFA is one of the BBG’s great success stories.
Recent journalistic accomplishments of BBG’s grantee surrogate media outlets, such as Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), are encouraging, especially in view of the continuing management and news reporting crisis at another one of BBG’s entities, the Voice of America (VOA).
BBG Watch reported earlier that the Voice of America English website was at least two to three hours late compared to major international and U.S. media outlets in reporting that the disgraced uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – Jang Song-thaek – had been executed.
We are not able to evaluate the performance of the VOA Korean Service because we lack sufficient Korean language skills. Some VOA language services, such as the Ukrainian Service, which we are able to evaluate, are doing an outstanding job despite a management crisis that affects most of the organization. We noted, however, that constant news failures of the VOA Central English Newsroom also have a negative effect on the vast majority of VOA language services and their websites, including the important Russian Service.
The results of the management crisis at the Voice of America as reflected in VOA news reporting from North Korea were described in a recent BBG Watch commentary:
“VOA and North Korea: Criticism of 2010 press release and VOA video describing Pyongyang as ‘vibrant city’,” BBG Watch, Dec. 13, 2013.
A VOA correspondent report from Pyongyang included a video which is devoted largely to repeating North Korea’s anti-American propaganda claims with almost no attempt to counter any of them in any substantive way. The video ends with a saleswoman dancing for the VOA reporter in a modern-looking store in Pyongyang. Keep in mind that people in North Korea, ruled by one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, have died from malnutrition in recent years. Link to the VOA video on YouTube.
The 2010 VOA press release, bragging about this video, even had a photo of a well-stocked store.If such videos are produced with the approval of VOA’s executives — and they are — one has to wonder what else is going on with them and some of the other VOA news programs. VOA executives not only approved of this video. They were genuinely proud of it and issued a press release. This is not speculation on our part. They did it and said it themselves.
None of this means does that the Voice of America cannot be reformed or that it is any less needed. On the contrary, the United States needs VOA to counter hostile anti-American propaganda abroad with balanced world and U.S. news and American opinions. VOA still has many outstanding journalists who are victims of bad management. Because of pressures from the top, many are prevented from doing a good job while some contractors simply do what they are told by VOA and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives.
The BBG Board needs to step in, just as it did more than a year ago when serious management problems developed at RFE/RL. Since the BBG’s intervention, RFE/RL has a new management team and has returned to doing outstanding news reporting. for which it was well known before. The BBG has also made some initial personnel and management changes at the IBB. The Voice of America should be next.
First of all, VOA needs to start observing its Charter. In addition to world news, VOA needs to focus on American news, U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. reactions, official and unofficial, to events abroad.
The U.S. news reporting and U.S. opinions, listed in the VOA Charter’s requirements two and three, are not part of the mission of Radio Free Asia, which by legislation must specialize in being a substitute free media outlet in countries whose governments do not tolerate free media. It is good to know, however, that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has taken note of the excellent job its surrogate media outlets are doing in challenging press censorship.
BBG PRESS RELEASE
Radio Free Asia provided in-depth and comprehensive reporting on the firing and execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, including coverage of events that led up to his demise. Utilizing inside sources in North Korea, RFA’s Korean Service reported earlier on a firefight between Jang’s loyalists and the North Korean official army. The firefight came after a dispute over North Korea’s highly profitable clam and crab-fishing grounds. Jang, until a few months ago, was part of North Korea’s small inner circle of powerful officials and was married to former dictator Kim Jong Il’s sister. He had acquired the grounds in 2011, after Kim came into power. RFA’s coverage has been cited in several major news outlets, including the New York Times.