“Words are sacred,” British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard once wrote. “They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world.” Or, in the words of George Washington: “The truth will ultimately prevail, when there are pains to bring it to light.”
Solid bits of advice spanning three centuries. They are clearly applicable to the current 21st century debate over the future of U.S.-funded international broadcast networks under a new U.S. administration.
Over the past few days, speculation has flared anew about dissension within those five networks: the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Network and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. All are advised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the BBG).
The ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) issued a press release March 19 that triggered the debate. In that release, he alleged that two senior civil service managers at the oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors have sought to persuade the White House to nominate a successor to the current CEO of the networks, John Lansing, and have one of them installed as his successor. As Mr. Engel put it, their goal is to convert the five networks “into an agency aimed at promoting the Trump administration’s agenda.”
Such a change, according to Congressman Engel, would constitute an egregious violation of the law that mandates a ‘firewall’ between the Board, the U.S. government and its journalistically independent networks. That firewall protects their professional integrity, according to a BBG memo issued under the Republican administration of George W. Bush on July 26, 2008.
According to CNN, one of the managers denied that they have conspired to have CEO Lansing removed and take over. The other declined comment, according to Foreign Affairs and others reporting the dispute. Legislation approved by Congress in late 2016 provides that Lansing — unless he resigns — remains in place until a successor is nominated by the President and confirmed by the full Senate. Representative Engel has requested immediate BBG documentation of all recent internal discussion of issues raised in his news release.
Meanwhile, hourly coverage of events in all regions of the world by the five BBG networks continues apace..
AN ERA OF SIGNIFICANT REFORMS
*During the eruption of anti-government demonstrations in Iran at the end of last year and into January, VOA broadcasters produced an around-the-clock schedule with two parallel, real-time blogs in both Persian and English. This involved interactions with multimedia audiences in Iran and other regions of the world. Multimedia users in both Iran and the Peoples Republic of China surged.
“By weeding out falsified images and videos,” VOA digital strategy director Matthew Baise told public diplomacy specialists at a recent George Washington University forum, “VOA was able to offer authenticated content that was viewed millions of times. The videos, pictures and on-site information we received were reported by people on the scene in 80 cities in Iran.”
*Authentic, on-scene verification of the facts or confirmation of their accuracy are standard practices at VOA and other networks. Since August of last year, VOA’s News Center and its Bangla and Burmese Services have broadcast nearly 300 reports on the Rohingya crisis, reporting from refugee camps or holding areas in both Burma and Bangladesh.
The team has conducted interviews with Rohingyas directly affected, U.S. diplomats, U.N. officials on scene, human rights organizations and members of the U.S. Congress. There have been more than three million interactions with VOA reporters and 9.6 million video views on social media during the crisis so far.
*A significant breakthrough in the 75-year history of U.S. funded international media occurred in 2017 when RFE/RL and VOA formally launched the first jointly produced around the clock TV program in Russian, Current Time. The program’s digital engagement editor is Sergey Shal, who has been key in what the BBG terms “the channel’s explosive growth.” Current Time attracted more than 400 million video views in Russia and surrounding countries last year.
The BBG networks are clearly on the move, but cannot afford to abandon their commitment to what the VOA’s statutory Charter (PL 105-277) requires: “accurate, objective and comprehensive news” and “a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”
CHALLENGES IN A DIGITAL AGE
Just two days after Congressman Engel’s press release, Bloomberg News reporter Keith Zhai reported that China will soon launch a combined network to be called Voice of China, a label similar to that of Voice of America founded during World War II. The new entity, Mr. Zhai said, “would be created through merging China Central Television, China Radio International, and China national radio”.
“Since taking power in 2012, PRC President Xi Jinping has tightened controls over freedom of expression,” according to correspondent Zhai. “The media run by the party and the government are propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name,” President Xi said during a visit to state-run broadcasters in 2016.
At the most recent U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors meeting March 14, leaders of its networks documented recent abuses of its correspondents by totalitarian governments around the globe. In China, for example, relatives of six RFA Uighur Service journalists have been detained by PRC authorities or have disappeared.
Altogether, 16 U.S. international media correspondents from China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Burundi, Pakistan and Turkmenistan have been harassed or imprisoned by authorities recently and three of them are missing and presumed dead. “Around the world,” according to a BBG statement, “our journalists risk their lives and livelihood every day to report the truth.”
Time to strengthen, properly fund, and fully support newly reformed U.S. taxpayer funded international media? As our first President put it: “The truth will ultimately prevail, when there are pains to bring it to light”.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 236 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More