A New Website Hides a Tale of Fewer Radio Programs to Tibet, China, Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine

Screenshot of the New Broadcasting Board of Governors Website.

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo.FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, September 10, 2008, San Francisco — Websites tell their tales, and the newly redesigned, flashy website of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) tells a tale of hubris, waste, and reduced access to uncensored radio news for those who are the poorest and the most repressed by authoritarian regimes.

Why Buddhist Monks?

The BBG, which manages U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasts to countries without free media, has just launched its new website, which shows on its “Home” page a picture of Buddhist monks, a flashy promotional video, and the slogan: “Bringing News and Information to People Around the World in 60 Languages.”

For those who are familiar with the BBG’s record of foreign policy blunders and are concerned about media freedom, the Buddhist monks picture tells a tale that is greatly at odds with the advertising look of the new government website. The same bipartisan body of two women and four men — three Democrats and three Republicans, including the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — had tried earlier to reduce the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) news radio programs to Tibet and China. These two stations are funded by the U.S. Congress and managed by the BBG.

These prominent, politically well-connected and business-oriented Americans — who, however, have no experience of living under a totalitarian regime, are not practicing journalists (with one exception), and have no record of significant activism in support of human rights –  had decided to reduce radio programs to Tibet about a year before the pro-autonomy demonstrations, which erupted there in March 2008 and were violently suppressed by the Chinese government in Beijing. They then refused to rescind their decision until a group of Tibetan monks went to the Capitol Hill and staged a peaceful protest. The U.S. Congress finally forced the BBG to back down on the program reductions to Tibet and China.

A Government Agency That Places A High Priority on Itself Tries to Hire Paula Zahn

The BBG claims that shortwave radio program cuts and reductions allow it to invest more in the development of their Internet program delivery strategy. They did use a picture of Buddhist monks, but to what purpose? The new  expensive website does not offer any help to the impoverished Tibetans in cities and in rural areas or to other groups around the world caught up in wars and conflicts and without access to the Internet. The same BBG also wanted to hire American television newscaster Paul Zahn, formerly of CNN and ABC, to be their public relations guru. She had turned them down.

Just 12 days before the Russian military attacked Georgia on August 8, the Broadcasting Board of Governors completely shut down all on-air Voice of America radio programs to Russia and to all other area were Russian is spoken. This included parts of the war zone in Georgia.

Senator Biden’s Staff Reportedly Helped to Kill VOA Radio to Russia

The Senate staff of the new Vice Presidential Democratic Party nominee, Senator Joe Biden, was said to have helped the BBG members implement this decision. It was carried out in great secrecy because of the widespread opposition to these program cuts among the rest of the members of Congress.

Extremists Invited by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Alhurra Television

Senator Biden was said to have favored program cuts at the Voice of America because they would benefit Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a semi-private entity, which is incorporated in his state. RFE/RL, which is also managed by the BBG and broadcasts in Russia, was recently criticized by the Moscow Human Rights Bureau for giving extensive airtime to an extremist Russian politician who is known for “chauvinist and racist views,” including comments about dark-skinned immigrants. Another BBG-managed private broadcaster, Alhurra Television to the Middle East, gave air time to a militant who called for the death of American soldiers in Iraq. The BBG claims that  radio program cuts to Tibet, and countries like Georgia and Russia, help to pay for Alhurra television and the expansion of its new technology infrastructure, including the Internet.

When the Russian troops entered deeply into the Georgian territory on August 8, the BBG was also about to shut down all Voice of America radio programs to Georgia and to Ukraine — the two countries under pressure from Russia, which Vice President Dick Cheney visited last week. Also last week, President Bush announced a $1 billion aid package to Georgia. But even these developments have had little if any effect on the BBG. The Board announced that the Voice of America Georgian radio programs will continue, but only for “the foreseeable future,” and described demands from its own journalists for reversing the other program cuts, including those to Russia and Ukraine, as “a non-starter.”

A Great New Promotional Website at Taxpayers’ Expense With Not Too Much Emphasis on Human Rights

The new BBG website looks very much like a  combination of a news and promotional site, even though the BBG itself was not created by Congress as a news organization or told to promote its own work to the American public. As a body called to guide and oversee the work of real broadcasters, it has no reason to glorify itself at U.S. taxpayers’ expense, much less hire Paula Zahn to do its public relations. The U.S. government-funded news organizations, managed by the BBG, already have their own news sites and public affairs departments. 

The Broadcasting Board of Governors is required, however, to promote respect for human rights through U.S. international broadcasting.  Interestingly, there are no permanent references to human rights on the new website’s “Home” and “About the Agency” pages. One has to search deeper through the site to find any permanent direct mention of human rights and media freedom.

In a twist of irony, however, on September 10, barely a month after the Voice of America radio programs to Russia were cut, the BBG sponsored a workshop — “New Media vs New Censorship: The Authoritarian Assault on Information.” By announcing the workshop on its Home page, the BBG made  at least an indirect and temporary reference to its human rights mission.

For more information about FreeMediaOnline.org and articles dealing with the BBG and U.S. international broadcasting, go to: http://www.freemediaonline.org.

 Listen To The Last Voice of America Russian Radio Broadcast

Voice of America Russian Website Logo.Listen here to the last Voice of America on-air Russian radio broadcast delivered on July 26, 2008, just twelve days before Russia attacked Georgia.

BBG Member Jeff Hirschberg.The BBG members who have supported cutting VOA programs to Tibet, China, Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine are: Joaquin Balaya, chairman of Balaya Media Inc.; Jeff Hirschberg, a partner of in Kalorama Partners, a consulting firm that deals with corporate governance and risk assessment and a director of the U.S-Russia Business Council; Edward E. Kaufman, Senator Biden’s former chief of staff who is now president of Public Strategies, a political and management consulting firm based in Wilmington, Delaware; and Steven J. Simmons, chairman and CEO of Patriot Media and Communications, LLC.

James K. Glassman, Former BBG Chairman, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public AffairsThree seats on the Board currently are empty, after the recent departure of former BBG Chairman James K. Glassman, who also favored program cuts at VOA. Glassman is now the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, Glassman was responsible for proposing to hire Paula Zahn. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does not attend the BBG meetings and is usually represented by  James Glassman.

BBG Member Blanquita Cullum reportedly voted against cuts in U.S. broadcasting to Russia, Georgia, Tibet, and other media-at-risk countries.FreeMediaOnline.org learned that only one BBG member, radio broadcaster Blanquita Cullum, questioned the decision to hire a media celebrity while radio programs to countries without free press were being cut. She was reported to have said that if the rest of the Board proceeded with hiring a new high profile spokesperson, “it would be over her dead body.” Cullum, who is a Republican, is also said to be the only member of the bipartisan Board who has consistently opposed  U.S. radio programming cuts to countries without free media.

View FreeMediaOnline.org Online Presentation SAVE VOICE OF AMERICA BROADCASTS

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo.View FreeMediaOnline.org Online Presentation in support of saving Voice of America broadcasts to Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Tibet and other media-at-risk countries.

Call or email the Broadcasting Board of Governors to register your protest: Tel: (202) 203-4400; Fax: (202) 203-4585; E-mail: publicaffairs@bbg.gov. CONTACT YOUR MEMBERS OF THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES AND THE U.S. SENATE and tell them about the BBG’s actions affecting U.S. support for freedom of the press and human rights and the use of your tax dollars. 

A statement issued recently by the leadership of the Voice of America employees’ unions, AFGE Local 1812 and AFSCME Local 1418, said that the Broadcasting Board of Governors “has been responsible for one blunder after another — to the point that its actions have compromised U.S. strategic interests.” Saying that “the elimination of Russian and Georgian radio broadcasts should be the last straw,” the VOA employees’ union leaders called on Congress to act immediately to dissolve the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

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