How We Sound to the World
     

 
Ann Noonan

Ann Noonan is the executive director for the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting.

We all know that there are many parts of the world where people continue to beg for words — words about the current state of affairs, words about respect for human rights, words about the gift of hope. People are hungry for freedom of expression and for unbiased information. People everywhere want access to uncensored news, and they themselves want to be heard.

There’s also a strong global drive, especially among younger and more educated citizens, to move the message of human rights from words to deeds. That drive is equally strongly resisted by various governments, which fear that words can lead to successful actions in support of freedom and democracy.

At the same time, large numbers of people abroad support ideas that most Americans would find troubling. We cannot pretend otherwise and be indifferent to these issues. America’s security and economic prosperity depend on how its own message and its image are presented abroad, and whether U.S. international broadcasting can deliver credible news and opinions to those who need them most, especially in countries without media freedom and among people who are suspicious of America’s intentions and who have doubts about democracy.

MANAGERIAL CRISIS

The free flow of information is a cornerstone of democracy and human rights. That is why American taxpayers have supported the different missions of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Martí, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network (Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV). Each one of these taxpayer-funded media entities with a goal of serving foreign audiences is an important national asset that needs to be protected and supported.

Ultimately, this kind of radio programming is one of America’s best and least costly investments in national security. U.S. international broadcasting can save American lives. It is tragic that it has fallen into a state of deep managerial crisis.

In an effort to bring U.S. international broadcasting out of this crisis, the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting was pleased to meet in New York with Jeff Shell, then president of NBC Universal International, during his first full business day as the Broadcasting Board of Governors chair. (He subsequently has been promoted to president of Universal Filmed Entertainment.)

This meeting gave hope to CUSIB that the lines of communication are again open and that taxpayers will be able to make sure that America is making wise choices in its international media outreach. We were also encouraged by Mr. Shell’s subsequent statements about how the best way to showcase freedom and democracy is through free media.

During his meeting with CUSIB, Mr. Shell heard firsthand accounts about how Iran’s democracy-seeking youth rely upon accurate information from the U.S. to be shared with them on their smartphones. He heard about the importance of radio broadcasts to Tibet, where the number of self-immolations continues to rise as a desperate attempt to bring awareness of the plight of the Tibetans. He met with a CUSIB member who spent five years in Laogai, China’s archipelago of forced labor camps, because of her support for democracy.

Further, Shell listened to another CUSIB member discuss Cuba, the great lengths Cuban dissidents will go to in order to get information, and the risks they face just to make sure their plight is known. Afterwards, one CUSIB member stated: “I trust that Mr. Shell left this meeting deeply impressed with the weight of his responsibility.” CUSIB also looks forward to meeting with Ambassador Crocker and Matthew Armstrong, the two other new BBG members. CUSIB also intends to meet with Kenneth Weinstein, who has most recently been confirmed by the Senate to serve on the BBG.

SEEK NEW VISION

CUSIB works hard to protect journalists in nations where media freedom does not exist. Our members are all volunteers. This assures that we are beholden to no one. We are also non-partisan. We were honored to welcome former BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe to CUSIB’s board, and we have had useful exchanges with two outstanding BBG members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, who together with Victor Ashe had made strong initial progress to re-establish public oversight and control over the government bureaucracy that has made U.S. international broadcasting nearly “defunct” and “dysfunctional,” to use former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words.

Our NGO makes no efforts to impact the particular content of news stories transmitted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, but we do make every effort to support the journalists who report about human rights and other issues. We want to be sure that they are treated properly by the management and have sufficient resources to do their important jobs.

We are one of the few organizations in the U.S. that specifically cares about and supports U.S. international broadcasting, and we believe that a new strategic vision needs to be articulated for it.

Neither CUSIB nor American taxpayers want the BBG to tailor its program content to become a commercial success, which seems to be the direction the bureaucracy has taken the BBG — but failed to deliver even on these faulty goals. That is not why U.S. international broadcasting was created by Congress.

We expect the BBG to specialize in reporting news and opinions that audiences abroad cannot get from other sources, particularly their own media, and to report and deliver such news and opinions to people in places like Cuba, Iran, Russia and China. CUSIB is seriously concerned that this strategic vision has been compromised by years of neglect and wrong choices by the central Washington administration, which has little connection to foreign audiences.

We have seen the weakening of news reporting and the loss of specialization by various BBG entities as a result of mandates imposed on them from above. We have seen also-important language services and their programs being eliminated or proposed for elimination while the central administration continued to grow.

Officials now propose even more centralization and more central planning. These proposals must be resisted.

USE ALL MEANS

Contrary to promises made by the BBG, elimination of broadcasts and reduced original news reporting have not resulted in greater audience engagement through social media.

This is particularly evident at the Voice of America, which has fallen far behind BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today in every measurable category. Because of our particular concerns with underserved, poor and repressed audiences, we are committed to the use of all means of reaching them, not just through the Internet, but also relying on shortwave radio broadcasts where they are still needed, direct-to-home satellite television and other creative technologies.

We believe that individual BBG entities are in the best position to decide what mix of new and traditional media works best for their audiences in various countries. We believe strongly in the primacy of the news and delivering the news through multiple media. We see radio and television news journalism not as obstacles to progress but as important contributors of multimedia content.

The merging of traditional and new media has been one of the IBB bureaucracy’s biggest failures. This problem must be addressed by the new board as soon as possible.

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi underscored the importance of VOA and RFA radio for freedom advocates in oppressed nations, including her homeland of Burma, during a visit to the BBG office in Washington on Sept. 18 last year.

Blind Chinese human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng also publicly expressed his appreciation of the value of radio broadcasting to China. Radio can be the lifeline for poor people in many places in the world who do not have television or Internet access. Radio is cheap, and unlike those who use computers, radio listeners cannot be monitored. We hope that Mr. Shell and the BBG board will work to strengthen both radio and television broadcasting as important news generating assets of a multimedia expansion strategy.

CUSIB believes that the BBG is not designed to run as a business. It is not expected to provide soft news and entertainment to achieve maximum ratings or to appease repressive governments. It requires good management and public oversight.

This concern was highlighted this past June by Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing when he asked, “What has to happen so that [the BBG] actually behaves like a news network so that the Iranian people can get good, can get clear, real news from this outlet?”

EMPLOYEE MORALE

CUSIB will support any effort by Mr. Shell and other BBG board members to change the management culture at the International Broadcasting Bureau and the Voice of America, to improve employee morale, and to make news reporting a priority.

Attacks on free expression, intimidation of employees, illegal firings, refusals to answer questions from journalists and attacks on journalists by government executives in charge of managing the agency must be stopped. It is the first step to reforming U.S. international broadcasting.

CUSIB appreciates the importance of both Voice of America and surrogate broadcasting and hopes that under Mr. Shell’s tenure, their roles will be supported. CUSIB does not accept the myth that these different missions duplicate each other. VOA Cantonese, Mandarin and Tibetan services provide news and opinions from the United States as mandated by the U.S. Congress in the Voice of America Charter.

Radio Free Asia has a separate congressional mandate and does tremendous work with local journalists. Voice of America’s identity and success abroad are tied to being identified with the United States. VOA cannot be a successful surrogate broadcaster, just as RFA cannot be a successful representative for all of America.

Unlike many of the European nations, the U.S. does not have a tradition of government-supported domestic media. Such a concept is alien to most Americans. NPR and PBS get only a small fraction of their funding directly from Congress.

Our constitution specifically says that the government shall not restrict free media. The concept of domestic government media repels a lot of Americans. We saw it with the harmful and unnecessary media controversy over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, around which the BBG’s executive staff did not predict the fallout and as a result had no plan to deal with it. It is one of the many examples of the agency being badly led at the bureaucratic level.

It seems to us that all too often, the Washington-centered bureaucracy cares little about specific audiences abroad and even fails to understand American politics. It is highly unlikely that U.S. international broadcasting would ever emerge as another global, “BBC-like” public media outlet serving both the U.S. and audiences abroad, with American taxpayers gladly paying for it with their tax money.

Americans are generous and humanitarian-minded people willing to support a well-defined and targeted U.S. international broadcasting mission abroad that has a strong media freedom and human rights purpose. CUSIB hopes that the new BBG board will work to advance such a mission under the leadership of its Chairman Shell.

We may not agree on everything, but we fully share his statement that the BBG “has a lot of very good people who work for this organization.” We must not let them down. We owe it to them and to the American taxpayers to support highly-specialized U.S media outlets, which international audiences will turn to as sources of needed and trusted news and opinions.

We live in a troubled and often dangerous world where freedom of the press is still rare and attacks on freedom all too common. The mission of U.S. international broadcasting is indeed to show freedom and democracy at work through courageous and unbiased journalism.

CUSIB describes itself as a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization working to strengthen free flow of uncensored news from the United States to countries with restricted and developing media environments.


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