The media freedom website BBG Watch reported that the Senate Committee on Appropriations has rejected the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) proposal to end Voice of America (VOA) radio and TV broadcasts to China and criticized the BBG for the lack of transparency. The committee recommended $740,039,000 for U.S. international broadcasting operations, for the operating and engineering costs of VOA, Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which includes Radio and TV Marti, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), which includes Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa, and the BBG in FY2012. The Obama Administration has asked for $754,261,000. The BBG’s FY2011 budget was $740,017,000. The BBG. manages these U.S. government-funded entities and broadcasting operations

In a highly critical language included in a report recommending the passage of the bill (S. 1601) making FY2012 appropriations for the Department of State, the BBG and other foreign operations, the Senate Committee on Appropriations expressed concern with “the lack of transparency” regarding the BBG proposal.

The committee noted that in addition to ending VOA radio and TV to China, the BBG also wanted to reduce shortwave and medium wave transmissions to Russia, Iran, North Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The committee directed the BBG to notify the committee when BBG broadcast hours are reduced or increased and when transmission platforms are changed. The committee approved funding for the continuation of these broadcasts and transmissions, including VOA radio and TV programs to China. The report was submitted by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.

In an earlier action, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs also voted by unanimous consent to approve an amendment proposed by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) that would prevent the BBG from ending VOA broadcasts to China. The vote represented an unprecendented full bipartisan rebuke to the BBG.

In describing his strategy of confronting Congress, the BBG chairman Walter Isaacson said in a recent interview with Congressional Quarterly that “these are battles I’m not afraid to have.” That strategy, advocated by the BBG permanent executive staffers who advise the part-time Board, backfired. Having managed to terminate VOA radio and TV broadcasts to Russia despite strong opposition from Senator Leahy and other members of Congress, these executive staffers were confident they could do it again in the case of VOA broadcasts to China.

This time they encountered a far stronger and better organized opposition from numerous media freedom and human rights groups. In the interview, Isaacson also mischaracterized the position of his Congressional and other critics by implying that they are so focused on preserving shortwave radio broadcasts that they fail to understand the importance of social media. Most of the critics are supporters of new media technologies but advocate a multi-media approach to program delivery, including satellite TV transmissions to China, which the BBG also wanted to eliminate. In a move that may signal a an attempt at damage control, the BBG has abolished the positions of some of its executives who were behind the decision to end VOA programs to China and reduce radio and TV transmissions to other countries without free media.

Before these Congressional actions, the BBG plan had been criticized by Chinese human rights activists, Human Rights Watch, American civil rights activists, journalists, and Chinese American organizations.

Laogai Research Foundation, Chinese Coalition for Citizens’ Rights, Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, Women’s Rights in China, Free Church for China, China Aid, Tibet House, Free Burma Alliance, The Chinese Chamber of Commerce in New York, Visual Artists Guild, Pasadena NAACP, National Committee Democratic Party of China, Alliance for Hong Kong Chinese in the US, Human Rights for Workers, and Ethan Gutmann, Recipient Tiananmen Spirit Award, signed a petition to Congress to save VOA Chinese broadcasts.

Free Media Online, a media freedom nonprofit, worked with current and former BBG employees and human rights activists to help launch BBG Watch website, which advocates for restoring media freedom focus and good management in U.S. international broadcasting.

Claims by BBG members and executives that almost no one in China listens to VOA radio on shortwave were denied by Chinese pro-democracy activists and derided by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

The Committee does not include the funds requested for program enhancements. However, the BBG may propose reallocations to fund these increases in the fiscal year 2012 spend plan. While the Committee recognizes that VOA English language and cultural programs are reaching audiences, particularly youth, via the Internet in the PRC, the Committee is concerned with the lack of clarity about the impact of the China broadcast restructuring proposal on all VOA radio and television programs broadcast to the PRC and Taiwan, and the lack of transparency of the ‘‘optimize BBG transmission’’ proposal. The Committee does not support either proposal and includes funding for the continuation of these broadcasts and transmissions.

Link to full report in PDF.

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