Op-Ed: US helping Chinese censors stifle the Jasmine Revolution | Digital Journal

By Ted Lipien

Published August 19, 2011 by Digital Journal

Washington – The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) executives have done a lot to damage U.S. radio and TV programs for audiences abroad nearly beyond repair.

The latest crisis at the agency, which manages U.S. government-funded overseas broadcasts, involves appeasing a dictatorial regime in Africa, censoring Voice of America (VOA) news, and dismissing a journalist who revealed the scandal. This follows another blunder just before the start of the Jasmine Revolution in China, when BBG executives announced the termination of VOA radio and TV programs in Mandarin and Cantonese and the firing of more than 40 journalists who specialize in human rights reporting.

The Board is bipartisan, with members recruited from among political loyalists, most of whom lack sufficient experience in foreign affairs, human rights and media freedom advocacy, but act as eight separate CEOs without being directly accountable to anyone. And they behave like members of the Politburo; harassing their own journalists, censoring news, and negotiating with dictators while ignoring pleas from human rights activists. No wonder U.S. international broadcasting is in crisis and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns that the U.S. “is losing the information war.”

The U.S. agency responsible for losing the information war has been placed year after year by the Office of Personnel Management at the top of the list of the worst-managed federal bureaucracies. The Secretary of State is right to be frustrated, and American taxpayers should be concerned how their 700 plus million dollars are spent each year by the BBG while the country is going more and more into debt, much of it to communist-ruled China.

To justify ending Voice of America broadcasting to China, Republican BBG member S. Enders Wimbush tried to persuade skeptical members of Congress just before the Jasmine Revolution unfolded that “almost no one” in China listens to VOA on the radio. He insisted that firing some VOA journalists will free up the money for investing in the Internet. 750 million people in China do not have Internet access and hundreds of millions are afraid to access Western news websites, which are blocked anyway by the Chinese authorities. For human rights activists and the poor in China, radio is a safer, more reliable, and less expensive way of getting uncensored news.

These same executives who claim expertise in negotiating with dictators and fighting Chinese Internet censorship have been unable to protect more than 40 VOA websites from Iranian and other foreign hackers. These attacks have made VOA websites inaccessible, sometimes for a few days. As The Washington Post and other U.S. and foreign media reported,  Iranian hackers even posted on VOA websites anti-American propaganda directed at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The claims of BBG bureaucrats that they need millions of dollars for the Internet are also without any foundation. The beauty of the Internet and social media is that they are very inexpensive to employ in addition to radio and TV broadcasting. A good example of that have been the efforts of Abebe Gellaw, an Ethiopian journalist living in exile in the U.S., who used his own news website to expose how three BBG members traveled to Ethiopia, negotiated with the repressive regime, censored VOA news reports, and then dismissed the VOA Horn of Africa Service chief for disclosing their actions. There is no need for the BBG to spend millions of dollars on private Internet contractors and to terminate pro-human rights broadcasts. In fact, the VOA Chinese service already has a strong Internet presence, but its website is blocked by the Chinese authorities.

The BBG member most furious about the VOA leak about the trip to Ethiopia was reportedly Michael P. Meehan, a political media advisor accused in 2010 of shoving a reporter who tried to ask questions of a U.S. Senate Democratic Party candidate from Massachusetts. He claimed he did not know the person shouting questions was a reporter but seemed to have again stumbled upon on yet another pesky journalist. 

Other BBG members who went to Ethiopia were Susan McCue, a former Chief of Staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Dana Perino, the former White House Press Secretary to President George W. Bush. Their decision to go on a pointless mission to negotiate with the Ethiopian regime was made even more outrageous by the fact that a few years earlier the same regime charged several VOA journalists working in Washington with treason and threatened them with the death penalty. 

Such BBG actions cause outrage among free media advocates and Americans concerned about human rights abroad. Leaders of Chinese American organizations have lobbied Congress on behalf of VOA’s Chinese Service. Ethiopian Americans have staged a demonstration in front of the BBG headquarters in Washington, DC.  An independent journalist fighting censorship in Russia warned that after BBG executives and consultants were done with the VOA Russian Service by terminating radio and TV broadcasts just days before Russian troops launched their attack on the Republic of Georgia in 2008, pro-Kremlin propaganda displaced much of the pro-democracy reporting on the VOA website.

Finally, even members of Congress have had enough of the BBG’s mismanagement and incompetence. As reported by Fox News, in a bipartisan rebuke, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted by unanimous consent to approve the amendment proposed by Rep. Dana Rohrebacher that would prevent the agency from ending VOA radio and TV transmissions to China. Both Democrats and Republicans derided “bureaucrats” who believe that people in China and Cuba would “jump in joy” and admit to listening to VOA or Radio Marti.

Yet the BBG still wants VOA Chinese news to be available in China only on the Internet and claims to be able to pierce the Great Internet Firewall, which protects the regime that has the best cyber police and the best hackers in the world. Ms. Jing Zhang, the president of Women’s Rights in China and a former political prisoner, spoke on behalf of many persecuted Chinese human rights activists when she wrote in a recent article that they will be dispirited and endangered if the Voice of America ends its radio and TV broadcasting. 

If nothing is done to change the political patronage system that is killing U.S. international broadcasting, we may soon hear about new radio and TV programs being terminated as pro-democracy movements are crushed in key areas of the world. We may even learn about new BBG missions to negotiate with repressive regimes, perhaps this time in Cuba, Burma, or North Korea. 

Let us hope the U.S. Congress will put a stop to such nonsense. The American people want U.S. government-funded broadcasts to promote human rights and to put fear into dictators. They don’t want to spend close to a billion dollars a year so that BBG members can travel around the world to meet with media censors, listen to their complaints, and then censor and fire Voice of America journalists. It is high time for the Obama Administration to wake up to the fact that those in charge of this dysfunctional agency, confused about their mission, have become a major embarrassment and a political liability, both at home and abroad.

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