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The Only Right Direction Is Forward

CUSIB supports efforts to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors

The author is the executive director for the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting.

“CEOs come and go, yet the BBG limps along,” declared U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement about the sudden departure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ first CEO, Andy Lack.

None of us wanted to see Andy Lack leave the agency. He was an excellent choice, and there is a lot we can learn from his brief tenure.

Coming from years at Bloomberg News Organization and NBC, Mr. Lack’s credentials matched the kind of experience required for a CEO of a $700+ million dollar federal governmental media umbrella organization.

Even before his Senate confirmation, Mr. Lack met with members of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting — an all-volunteer organization — to hear about our individual concerns and our hopes for improvement at the BBG. He accepted our offer of advice and support and learned as much as he could from the experience of our director and co-founder, Ted Lipien.

A high-ranking AFGE Local 1812 union official at the BBG was impressed with Mr. Lack’s warmth and sense of humor and his knowledge of the news business, stating: “I think everyone, but the most cynical, is pulling for him.”

While none of us know why he stepped down, I still believe that Mr. Lack cares deeply about international media and the journalists who provide news coverage to areas of the world that are deprived of press freedom. I am confident that in his private sector role he will continue to promote the importance of the BBG’s mission.

In many ways, Mr. Lack has set the bar for his replacement. In the next CEO, we will need someone who can bring out a spirit of cooperation from others in an agency that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “practically defunct.”

Some of the most serious concerns CUSIB has about the current state of affairs at the BBG include the ongoing efforts to eliminate shortwave and medium-wave radio to China.

My awareness about this need began in 1995, when I attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. While in China, I attended an illegal meeting with Underground Catholic clergy. They wanted to meet an American Catholic woman to share their stories of religious persecution and to let American Catholics know how abandoned they feel (they still do) by the international Catholic Church.

After returning home, I worked with members of the Chinese dissident community to draw attention to the plight of imprisoned clergy, labor rights advocates and human rights and democracy seekers in China. One thing I learned was that whenever word of our support reached those who are oppressed in China, it lifted their spirits and resolve. They knew by these actions that their plight was not ignored. Whether it was activity on behalf of an imprisoned underground Catholic Bishop or other human rights defenders: Harry Wu, Wei Jingsheng, Cheng Guangcheng or Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, word of this advocacy was often carried on broadcasts by Radio Free Asia and Voice of America China Services.

In 2011, the BBG’s threat to cut off shortwave and medium-wave radio broadcasting by VOA and RFA brought the issue close to home. Along with Ted Lipien and members of our newly formed CUSIB, I contacted those members of Congress with oversight for U.S. international media outreach to remind them of the historic mission of BBG, VOA and RFA and the central role of radio broadcasting.

In our efforts, we appealed to Mrs. Thomas Lantos, the late congressman’s wife, who personally wrote to the Broadcasting Board of Governors re-emphasizing the importance her husband gave to the role of radio, particularly in countries where Internet censorship was so prevalent.

The end result was a congressional rejection of the funding cuts, continued use of shortwave and medium-wave radio and maintenance of the staffing levels.

These challenges, the urge to cut shortwave and medium-wave radio, TV broadcasts and journalists, are a yearly battle. The findings from the BBG’s Shortwave Committee that was headed by BBG Governor Matt Armstrong gave no comfort. What also doesn’t help is the notion held by some BBG officials that everyone in China has access to an unmonitored cell phone and the unblocked and fully free Internet. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While many people in China do, in fact, own cell phones and can go online, there are a good majority of poor people, especially in rural areas, who cannot afford cell phones and many people have no access to the Internet. They deserve the same access to information as any other person who deserves basic human rights. They can’t get them in China and in many other countries.

That’s where the BBG steps in and that’s the reason U.S. taxpayers are willing to pay for radio and television broadcasts, as well as the Internet and other new media if they are available and are not censored.

But there is the Great Firewall of China, where only websites with pre-approved domain names are allowed to connect to the physical network. Internet users in China are required to provide their identity before registering any online account. Let’s not forget that the People’s Republic of China’s government employs the largest Internet police force in the world.

During the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement protests, the BBG failed in its ability to handle surge radio broadcasting, although RFA managed to launch a satellite television channel. Congressional actions that followed included bicameral legislation sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Chris Smith, calling for the maintenance of vigorous RFA and VOA broadcasting in Cantonese “to better defend their human rights and hold their government accountable.”

Some new areas of concern involve morale problems at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. At this time in renewed U.S.-Cuba relations, the need for a voice of democracy is more crucial than ever, and while we are delighted that the BBG will finally reinstate their employees who were illegally fired more than 5 years ago, we still await justice for those whose cases have not yet been resolved.

The situation in Ukraine and Russia is overcast by an old Soviet-style propaganda machine of the Kremlin, the likes of which has not been seen since the Cold War. However, the Voice of America seems more distracted by issues caused by mismanagement than focused on delivery of superior content.

Could there ever be a more pressing need to discuss the impact of ISIS and the reaction of neighboring countries to the spread and impact of radical Islamists, whose carte-blanche access to Facebook and other social media has resulted in recruitment ads for would-be jihadists throughout the world?

The need for journalists fluent in languages and cultures of these countries covered by the various BBG entities seems all too obvious. Nevertheless, management and staffing lag far behind in these areas as well.

The creation of an overall CEO could not have come at a better time, and the only direction right now for the BBG is forward.

On behalf of CUSIB, we wish André Mendes the best in his role as interim CEO, and we will continue to support the BBG’s efforts to replace Andy Lack. We also support the bipartisan effort in Congress to reform the BBG.

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