BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of America or Voice of Castro?

While surfing the web, we recently came across a Voice of America news report in English titled: “Castro Urges US to End Broadcasts Directed at Cuba.” The 430-word report posted on December 18 is devoted almost entirely to what Mr. Castro had to say about U.S.-funded Radio and TV Marti to Cuba (he wants President Obama to shut it down) and a few other issues.

We started to wonder whether this kind of VOA news reporting: nearly a word-for-word repetition what some octogenarian communist leader wants the world to believe, with no questions asked by VOA editors, might puzzle independent journalists, bloggers and human rights activists in Cuba, some of whom still linger behind bars or are constantly harassed by Castro’s secret police thugs? That kind of “matter-of-fact” reporting by some Western media drove human rights activists and ordinary radio listeners crazy in the Soviet block during the Cold War. When VOA failed them, which it sometimes did, they were grateful to have Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, also funded by America. Would George Orwell be proud of VOA now or horrified that his prophesy is coming true?

The VOA report about Castro caught our eye because it says nothing as to why Radio and TV Marti were created in the first place, takes almost everything Castro says at face value and ends with a statement that Castro “overthrew the island’s longtime dictator in 1959.” VOA did not ask Radio and TV Marti listeners and viewers in Cuba for their reaction to Castro’s call for the stations to be silenced. In this report, VOA does not refer to Castro himself as a dictator. Such terms are apparently reserved by VOA reporters only for leaders they personally consider unsavory. VOA also calls those trying to escape from Cuba “Cuban migrants” rather than political refugees.

Those killed by Castro’s soldiers and those who perished at sea trying to flee might disagree. But, alas, the dead don’t complain. The VOA report does not try to explain why in the world any Cuban would want to escape the socialist paradise that is Cuba with its universal “free” medical care and “free” education? VOA gave Mr. Castro a media platform to present his views, but it failed to include statements from any Cuban human rights and pro-democracy activists.

The usual defense of BBG officials for such one-sided news is that VOA covers human rights issues in Cuba in its other reports. True enough. There is still a lot of good reporting being done now by individual VOA journalists and language services. But this is not a valid excuse for repeating somebody else’s propaganda, confusing the audience and damaging one’s own credibility. This happens now more frequently at VOA than at anytime in recent memory. All VOA news reports should be accurate, balanced, objective and comprehensive.

Would VOA central English newsroom reporters benefit if the Broadcasting Board of Governors arranged for them a workshop with Cuban, Chinese, Tibetan or North Korean political refugees in the United States or offer an in-house viewing of Una Noche, an outstanding film about an escape from Cuba?

In our view, it may already be too late. One would have to arrange for a lot of history and basic journalism lessons–not Radio Havana and RT journalism, but journalism according to the VOA Charter. It might be better if the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress shut the agency down and started from scratch by putting VOA in a separate category from outlets such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and arranging for more oversight for all entities. Radio and TV Marti should also be freed from control by the BBG bureaucracy.

Something needs to be done, because the United States needs an effective media outreach abroad now more than ever to cope with recruitment of violent extremists by ISIS and disinformation by the Kremlin. On a broader scale, quite a number of other Western journalists–although VOA central English newsroom more so than the others–seem unable to react well to President Putin’s robust propaganda machine, as observed by American scholar Paul Goble, a former analyst for U.S. State Department, CIA, BBG, VOA and RFE/RL:

PAUL GOBLE: …Putin is taking advantage of a set of attitudes among Western journalists and media moguls that almost guarantee success for his kind of operation. For a long time now, many Western journalists have confused balance with objectivity, believing that they should report all positions on an issue regardless of the evidence for them. That only encourages Moscow to flood the media with its multiple versions of reality, confident that the Western media will pick them up as «part of the story».

Did VOA pick up Castro’s statement as “part of the story”? Is there even balance in VOA’s Castro report, much less objectivity? Why spend U.S. taxpayers’ dollars on repeating what Castro says without offering any other input? Wouldn’t it be better to leave the PR and propaganda job for Castro to Radio Havana and give more money to Radio and TV Marti to do objective reporting from the U.S. and from Cuba if they still can? Part-time BBG Governors don’t seem to have time to care. They also have allowed VOA to be tainted with cheap and poorly produced entertainment content in recent years while VOA’s hard news reporting has suffered from neglect.

To private business executives who serve on the BBG board, almost anything that might increase reach seems good, as does more centralized control over U.S.-funded media outreach abroad. BBG bureaucrats tell them what they want to hear. They like control despite being unable to use it for a good purpose, and they hide serious problems from BBG board members, their new CEO John Lansing, and the American people. The quality of VOA and even RFE/RL programs has declined, as seen in the VOA Castro report or in a recent RFE/RL report on EU sanctions against Russia. Even RFE/RL can’t defend itself against the central BBG bureaucracy in Washington.

Is there no other way, or should we just give up and turn VOA into Radio Havana and Radio Moscow? Allowing the Broadcasting Board of Governors to maintain its defunct status quo would be a terrible mistake that could seriously harm Americans at home and abroad. BBG and VOA reform should be a national security priority.

It is time to radically change the course. The bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors would do it. It should be passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by the President before the people in Cuba and elsewhere lose all hope in the Voice of America and in the United States.


As of December 27, 2015, this Voice of America report dated December 18 is showing only 6 Facebook “Recommends” and 2 comments on the VOA English news website. It appears that BBG and VOA executives either have not seen it, or if they have, they did not find anything wrong with it. It is also possible that they are afraid to take any action because they might be accused of censorship. Some VOA English newsroom reporters said that “countering” violent ISIS extremism in VOA reports would undermine their journalistic integrity.


Castro Urges US to End Broadcasts Directed at Cuba

Cuban President Raul Castro is urging the U.S. government to stop radio and television broadcasts that Cuba considers harmful, while also saying that his government is willing to keep improving relations with the United States.

In a speech broadcast on state television Friday, Castro said that his government will “continue insisting that to reach normalized relations, it is imperative that the United States government eliminate all of these policies from the past.”

He noted that the U.S. government continues to broadcast to Cuba, including transmissions of Radio Marti and TV Marti, despite Cuba’s objections. Radio Marti and TV Marti are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is also the parent organization of the Voice of America.

Castro also criticized U.S. immigration policy that allows Cuban migrants to live in the United States if they reach U.S. territory.

“A preferential migration policy continues to be applied to Cuban citizens, which is evidenced by the enforcement of the wet foot/dry foot policy, the Medical Professional Parole Program and the Cuban Adjustment Act, which encourage an illegal, unsafe, disorderly and irregular migration, foment human smuggling and other related crimes, and create problems to other countries,” Castro said.

Trade embargo

Castro also repeated his call for the U.S. trade embargo against the communist nation to be lifted, saying President Barack Obama can do more to help end the embargo.

Obama has publicly urged Congress to lift the 56-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, but so far, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Congress have taken no major steps toward that end.

“The steps taken so far by President Obama, although positive, have proved to be limited in scope, which has prevented their implementation,” Castro said.

Signs of warmth

In his speech, Castro also noted advancements since last year, when he and Obama announced they would normalize relations after more than five decades of Cold War hostilities.

In the past year, embassies in Havana and Washington reopened and top-level meetings have taken place between officials from both countries, including Obama and Castro. Also, the United States has removed Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and eased some travel restrictions to the communist country.

On Thursday, the two countries struck a deal to restore regular commercial flights. The U.S. State Department said that agreement would lead to increased authorized travel to the island nation, such as for educational trips, even though tourist flights are still banned.

Ties between the United States and Cuba were severed shortly after communist leader Fidel Castro overthrew the island’s longtime dictator in 1959.