By Ted Lipien

The Bush Administration supports freedom of democracy around the world. Right? Wasn’t this one of the reasons America went to war in Iraq? U.S. overseas broadcasts, managed by the bipartisan Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG), have been for more than half a century one of the most effective tools in promoting freedom and democracy. Both Democratic and Republican Administrations have always agreed it makes sense to use public money to pay for broadcasting information to countries without free media. U.S.-funded radio programs, such as those on the Voice of America (VOA), won the Cold War by helping to avoid war. They cost less than a tiny fraction of the annual Pentagon budget.

So why at the time when America is facing increasing skepticism and hostility abroad, the White House and the BBG want to either eliminate or reduce American broadcasts to countries with a long-established record of suppressing free speech? The Administration’s latest plan calls for cutting radio programs to Russia, China, Tibet, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and several other countries. The BBG also wants to reduce drastically VOA broadcasts in English at the time when many countries, including Russia and China, are increasing their English-language programs.

Isn’t it better to invest in a peaceful exchange of ideas now rather than to face consequences of misunderstandings, civil unrest and possible wars later? America should not abandon those who want uncensored information and are asking our support in their struggle for freedom.  The official explanation from the Bush Administration and the BBG for the announced program cuts is embarrassingly lame.  The BBG claims that by reducing support for free flow of information to one group of dictator-ruled nations they will increase support for free speech in countries like Iraq, Pakistan, and North Korea. The irony of this argument is self-apparent.

But there is much more to this serious problem than just a faulty logic and lame excuses. Starting and expanding broadcasts when there is an impending crisis is nearly always too late to avert violence and produce a lasting impact. Perhaps if we expanded news and information programs to Iran ten years ago instead of reducing them, we would not be so close to a potential military conflict with that nation. Ten years from now we may wish the United States did not silence or reduce programs to Russia, China, and countries in Central Asia – as the Bush Administration and the BBG are planning to do in their FY2008 budget proposal.  In a few years it may be again too late to benefit from such broadcasts should these nations provoke or become involved in internal or international conflicts.   

Only the Congress can stop this foolish and short-sighted plan. Eleven former Voice of America directors have called on the U.S. Congress to do just that. The West won the Cold War largely with the help of radio broadcasts to countries behind the Iron Curtain. It makes absolutely no sense to reduce America’s voice abroad at the time of growing anti-Americanism, extremism and threats of new wars. The decisions made by the Bush White House and the BBG to cut VOA English radio broadcasts and to eliminate or reduce programs in 15 other languages will have devastating consequences if they are not quickly reversed. These decisions will harm America’s long-term interest in reducing international tensions, building bridges between civilizations and supporting democracy.

It is not, however, only the Administration officials and the BBG who bear the blame for this unilateral informational disarmament.  Many other decision and opinion-makers are also guilty of placing too much emphasis on the military for solving international problems and grossly underestimate the power of independent journalism. The Administration is willing to spend billions of dollars on the war in Iraq and hundreds of millions of dollars on ineffective and often embarrassing and counterproductive disinformation and propaganda programs run by private contractors. The Bush Administration has shown little appreciation for objective journalism and its long-term benefits in dealing with other nations. There have been very few voices in support of independent journalism as a credible counterbalance to ineffective public diplomacy and propaganda.

Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should have been in the forefront in educating the White House, the Congress, and the American public how U.S. overseas broadcasts help to overcome censorship, promote international dialogue and prevent wars. Instead, some BBG members voted to eliminate or reduce programs which they have been charged with protecting and improving. They have failed to fulfill their public duty and failed in their mission to support democracy.

We definitely should provide more information to the Muslim world, as the Broadcasting Board of Governors is pledging to do. But why the only choice the BBG could come up with to accomplish this goal was the elimination of the Voice of America (VOA) radio programs to Russia? This is a country where independent journalists are regularly murdered and President Putin controls all major television channels. The Administration requests and the Congress approves hundreds of billions of dollars to fight the war in Iraq, but the richest nation in the world, its elected representatives, the White House, and the bipartisan board cannot find a few million dollars to continue U.S. broadcasts to some of the strategically most important countries – countries where press freedom is under severe pressure.

Americans become upset with their government when they hear media reports that American soldiers Iraq lack proper armor and medical care. But when the same government plans to cripple one of America’s most successful peaceful tools in the war of ideas, hardly anyone notices. This unilateral disarmament – misguided and unnecessary – urgently needs a Congressional investigation. The Congress should investigate as to why the bipartisan body in charge of U.S. overseas radio, television and Internet broadcasts is unwilling to reform the vast broadcasting bureaucracy and relies instead on cutting critical programs for communicating with the world to meet its budget goals set by the White House.

Dismissing foreign-speaking journalists at VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Radio Free Asia (RFA) – the broadcasting entities managed by the BBG –  is far easier than eliminating bureaucratic positions, but this policy will have grave consequences for America’s image abroad and our ability to influence foreign audiences. It sends a terrible signal to courageous journalists and supporters of press freedom everywhere. It’s an insult to the memory of the brave Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was murdered last year in Moscow by an unknown assailant. Her murder was almost certainly provoked by her reporting on human rights abuses, government corruption, and anti-democratic policies of the Putin regime. While she was alive and being constantly harassed by Mr. Putin’s secret police, she used Radio Liberty and Voice of America programs to expose government misconduct. President Putin and Uzbekistan’s autocratic leader Islam Karimov could not have been happier with the BBG’s actions. In effect, the BBG is rewarding these leaders because they have been successful in disrupting the distribution of VOA and RFE/RL programs in their countries. The BBG not only failed to help its broadcasters overcome these program distribution barriers but is punishing journalists for its own failure to invest in innovative program delivery to countries run by clever dictators.

Congressional hearings into this matter would expose how some of the BBG members were outsmarted by Mr. Putin’s media handlers when the bipartisan board voted to cut VOA Russian programs. An investigation would also show a disturbing history of eliminating and restarting taxpayer-funded foreign language broadcasts without much regard for long-term U.S. interests and without much appreciation how overseas audiences view this appalling lack of consistency in supporting democracy.

Click on the image to sign Save Voice of America PetitionA petition to save VOA broadcasts to Russia and other media-at-risk countries, initiated by FreeMediaOnline.org, a California-based nonprofit organization which supports freedom of the press worldwide, is available at: http://www.petitiononline.com/tl1122/petition.html . Anyone who values America’s ability to conduct a peaceful dialogue with the world should sign this petition. Congress must stop the BBG from making yet another concession to dictators and suppressors of press freedom. America should not be made defenseless in the war of ideas.

Ted Lipien is a former acting associate director of the Voice of America who now heads FreeMediaOnline.org.

 

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