BBG Watch Commentary

The Voice of America (VOA) was well behind BBC, Radio France Internationale (RFI), Deutsche Welle (DW) and many other international news organizations in reporting on Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a true hero of humanistic and peaceful values. This happens so often, that it is no longer a surprise when the Voice of America is late in reporting such important news. The VOA news report on Liu Xiaobo’s death was posted at 9:26 AM EDT. The news report was later updated.

VOA English News was, however, not only late in reporting on Liu Xiaobo’s death, but it also included in its report an out-of-context statement attributed to Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Liu Xia, that “she is reported to have said that she was determined to marry the ‘enemy of the state’.”

If this were a VOA report about a Russian dissident, and such an “enemy of the state” communist propaganda jargon quote was used without any context or explanation, it would certainly lead to questions among Russia experts whether it might be a Russian secret police provocation designed to promote a narrative among those prone to believe it that perhaps the individual who was in prison was after all reckless and bent on undermining a legitimate state. This is not what Liu Xiaobo. In his well-known statement, Liu Xiaobo said: “I have no enemies and no hatred… Hatred only eats away at a person’s intelligence and conscience and an enemy mentality can poison the spirit of an entire people (as the experience of our country during Mao era clearly shows.)

We did some checking and discovered that Liu Xiaobo’s wife and now widow, Liu Xia, might have said what was reported by VOA, but if she had said it, she said it in a totally different context which was completely left out of the VOA story.

According to other news reports, Liu Xia was responding to a question from Chinese prison guards whether she wanted to marry an “enemy of the state” and, in a response clearly designed to be sarcastic, she might have said that she did. That puts her statement, if indeed she made it, in a totally different light and perspective. The context in which the statement was made gives it an entirely different meaning from the one implied in VOA’s use of this taken out-of-context quote. Liu Xia was clearly not saying that she wanted to marry Liu Xiaobo because he was “the enemy of the state,” because he was not. She knew him and knew that he was not. She was merely responding with deep sarcasm to the Chinese communist prison guards’ description of Liu Xiaobo as “enemy of the state” and expressing her wish to marry him.

We have asked one veteran journalist and expert on Soviet propaganda to comment on the VOA report, and this is what he told us:

“Words and contexts matter greatly in propaganda and in news reporting about propaganda and disinformation. Inexperienced BBG and VOA leaders, managers, editors and reporters seem to lack the knowledge of subtle (and even less subtle) propaganda of the enemies of freedom and democracy. At least three of VOA’s most senior managers have had previous experience in Chinese affairs, but they either don’t grasp how subtle propaganda works or they don’t look at VOA websites.
With its blanket ‘enemy of the state’ statement and without any context in which it might have been used, VOA certainly did not make life easier for the widow of the Chinese dissident. Liu Xia has suffered tremendously. Perhaps in an unintended way, VOA definitely helped the Chinese propaganda narrative with this statement which was taken out of context. If someone is the “enemy of the state,” then perhaps they deserve to be imprisoned. If no one believed this, then we would not need VOA to counter such views and propaganda. We could all stop what we’re doing, save taxpayers’ money and do something else. VOA’s job is to expose false propaganda, not to help reinforce it.”

A China expert we consulted agreed with this assessment:

“I agree the context was clearly sarcastic.
My concern is that we should be talking about what prompted his arrest in the first place.
His death is an indictment on the CCP persecution and cruelty – but all he did was promote peaceful transition towards democratic values.”

The independent and nonpartisan NGO, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) also agreed in a comment on the dysfunctional state of the Voice of America and its parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors:

COMMITTEE FOR U.S. INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING (CUSIB): Liu Xiaobo was a peaceful man, a great man. That is certainly different than being “the enemy of the state” as referred to by the Voice of America in an quote taken completely out of context. He was not even an enemy of the oppressive Chinese communist state. That was not what he was. That’s what the Chinese Communist Party wants people to believe he was.
VOA should have said that it was the communist Chinese government which accused Liu Xiaobo of being the “enemy of the state,” counter it with examples of his peaceful actions to bring democracy to China, and leave it at that.
Hostile propaganda and disinformation should not be taken lightly or be left in the hands of inexperienced VOA managers and reporters to deal with on behalf of the United States. We have seen countless examples of how VOA and even Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) have helped to advance in recent years, hopefully unwittingly and not on purpose, Putin’s and the Iranian regime’s propaganda themes.
Dr. Nikolai Rudensky, an independent Russian media scholar and independent journalist, spelled it out in his “pro-Putin bias” study which was commissioned in 2011 by none other that the BBG bureaucracy and quickly suppressed by it. We see that not much has changed since then.
RFE/RL has recently fired and/or censored anti-Putin and anti-Iranian regime journalists while VOA’s senior leadership put on administrative leave five frontline VOA Mandarin journalists who tried to get an exclusive story on Guo Wengui, that now a Washington media outlet has just published. This could have been a VOA story. Instead, a bad judgment call by VOA senior leaders led to VOA’s loss of reputation and credibility in China. These suspended VOA Mandarin Service journalists were stymied and punished for the mistake of their senior managers. It is great shame that they are still prevented by the same managers from returning to work. Have they been working, perhaps this latest incident of VOA’s sloppy reporting and editing on a China story could have been prevented. We strongly urge the Broadcasting Board of Governors to reinstate these VOA China journalists to their former positions.
We must conclude that at this stage VOA and BBG have neither leadership nor enough experienced and sophisticated journalists and editors who can expose Chinese, Russian or Iranian propaganda. They often help to spread this insidious propaganda through uninformed or unsophisticated reporting. Something needs to be done quickly to change this.
Some time ago, a high-level VOA executive tried to convince us that news organizations make mistakes all the time, and it’s no big deal. We follow a lot of media. The number of mistakes news organizations make has indeed risen overall, but nowhere even close to the number of such mistakes at VOA. Because of VOA’s special status as America’s “Voice,” VOA’s errors matter much more abroad and can have much greater consequences for America’s image, U.S. public diplomacy, America’s security and human rights activists in countries ruled by repressive regimes.
CUSIB will relentlessly point this out until we see real management reforms at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and other BBG entities and elements that urgently need reform. At the same time CUSIB applauds Radio Free Asia (RFA) for its excellent reporting on Liu Xiaobo’s death and all other China-related news. We urge the U.S. Congress not to make any cuts in RFA’s budget and increase it instead. Cuts should be made to the vast, ineffective and wasteful Broadcasting Board of Governors bureaucracy and the money used to expand and improve programming to China.