US Senate committee rebukes Broadcasting Board of Governors on strategy and program cuts
The U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy (D – VT), issued a strong public rebuke to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) on the overall strategy and programming cuts in international broadcasts proposed by BBG officials for the fiscal year 2013. In was the second such rebuke from the Senate Committee in the last two years. It follows a similar rebuke earlier from the House Committee on Appropriations.
The Senate Committee expressed concern that “BBG proposes reductions in current programs before testing new program models for effectiveness, particularly in priority languages.” The Committee recommended that many of the BBG proposed programming cuts be rejected, especially in broadcasts to China, Tibet and other nations without free media.
The Committee also expressed concern that “BBG’s broadcast priorities do not fully align with U.S. foreign policy priorities.” The Committee noted that the BBG fiscal year 2013 budget request “reduces broadcasting to Asia at the same time the Secretary of State has called for expanding engagement with Asia, particularly East Asia.” The two top career BBG officials responsible for strategic planning are International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Deputy Director Jeffrey N. Trimble and Bruce Sherman, the Director of Strategy and Development. Sherman is in charge of global strategy and research for the BBG. They both work for IBB Director Richard M. Lobo who was appointed by President Obama and kept the old management team despite a similar rebuke it received last year from the Democrat-controlled Senate. Because BBG members serve part time and many miss even their infrequent board and committee meetings, the agency is effectively run by career officials.
The IBB strategic planning and management team’s budget plan was approved by the majority of nine members serving on the bipartisan board. Their strongest defender on the board was Republican member S. Enders Wimbush who resigned this week. They also enjoyed full support from BBG’s former Democratic chairman Walter Isaacson who resigned earlier this year. But after Isaacson’s resignation, warnings from BBG’s senior Republican member Ambassador Victor Ashe, and protests from China experts and highly respected human rights campaigner Annette Lantos, even Wimbush and other BBG members eventually voted in the end to restore funding for Voice of America broadcasts to China and Tibet, which the BBG strategic planners wanted to eliminate. The Senate Committee went much further and recommended dropping many other proposed cuts.
The Senate Committee on Appropriations recommended funding to sustain BBG broadcasts to China as well as for the VOA Mandarin television initiative begun in fiscal year 2012. The Committee also recommended $400,000 in addition to funds already available for VOA and RFA Tibetan Services for special programming, particularly radio programming, to enhance coverage of events in Tibet. The Committee directed the BBG to consult prior to implementation of such special programs. It is not clear, however, whether the Senate committee action will force IBB officials to restore two hours of VOA Mandarin live radio broadcasts which they had replaced with repeat programs with no live newscasts. This created a 17 hour VOA Mandarin radio news silence in China. These officials had earlier assured Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R – CA) that there would be no changes in VOA Mandarin radio programs in FY 2013. Rep. Rohrabacher accused them of being “opaque in its decision making and incredibility tone deaf to Congressional priorities,” especially on Voice of America (VOA) broadcasting to China, but a senior official of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) dismissed the Congressman’s “implication” as “inaccurate,” sources told BBG Watch.
According to BBG Watch sources, this and other IBB officials are now trying to persuade some members of Congress to support their proposal of creating a powerful CEO position at the BBG that would not be subject to being appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. This proposal is opposed by BBG member Victor Ashe and outside critics who see it as an attempt to increase the power of IBB bureaucrats and diminish public and Congressional scrutiny of the agency’s operations.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also recommended funding to continue current VOA and RFE/RL programming to Central Asia and for the new VOA and RFE/RL program to that region. The Committee recommended the budget request for the expansion of Middle East Broadcasting Network’s television programming to Egypt. If BBG’s fiscal year 2014 budget request proposes to reduce current programs to the PRC or Central Asia in favor of new program models, the Committee directed BBG to include in the CBJ an assessment of the effectiveness of the new programs as compared with existing programs.
The Committee did not support the proposed BBG digital media development initiative.
Last year, the Senate Committee on Appropriations also issued a similar rebuke to the BBG. The Committee at that time also expressed concern 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 did not support either proposal and in 2011 included funding for the continuation of these broadcasts and transmissions inFY 2013. Despite this language, IBB officials proposed some of the same cuts for FY 2013 and were again rebuked by the Senate Committee. Asked for a comment, one former VOA and BBG executive told BBG Watch that “the International Broadcasting Bureau officials seem by now to be immune to public humiliation from Congress and will most likely continue on their current course unless the majority of BBG members decide to intervene to save U.S. international broadcasting and their own reputation.”
BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS
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INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING OPERATIONS
Budget estimate, 2013
The Committee recommends $724,200,000 for International Broadcasting Operations, and does not include funding for phase III of the Foreign Service comparability pay.
Funds in this account are allocated according to the following table and are subject to the provisions of section 7019 of this act:
INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING OPERATIONS
Budget authority in thousands of dollars
Federal entities 486,670
BBG/IBB operations 71,400
International Broadcasting Bureau [IBB]:
Voice of America 198,870
Broadcasting to Cuba 23,400
Engineering and Technical Services 193,000
Independent Grantee Organizations 237,530
Internet Freedom (non-add) 12,000
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty [RFE/RL] 93,675
Radio Free Asia [RFA] 36,585
Middle East Broadcasting Networks [MBN] 107,270
Internet Circumvention- The Committee recommends $12,000,000 for BBG’s Internet circumvention program, and directs BBG to submit a report, prior to the initial obligation of funds, detailing planned expenditures for this purpose. The Committee encourages continued coordination and cooperation between the Department of State and USAID on the planning and implementation of these programs. The Committee encourages BBG to consider digital security and digital safety training for those who use BBG circumvention tools. The Committee directs BBG to continue to monitor protections against BBG tools being used for illicit purposes, and expects BBG to inform the Committee of any concerns.
Iran- The Committee directs GAO to submit a report assessing the audience share of U.S. broadcasting to Iran as compared to other international broadcasters, and whether U.S. policies toward Iran are presented clearly and effectively in such broadcasts, and in a balanced manner.
New Program Initiatives- The Committee supports BBG’s efforts to identify new program formats but is concerned that BBG proposes reductions in current programs before testing new program models for effectiveness, particularly in priority languages. Therefore, the Committee recommends funding to sustain BBG broadcasts to the PRC as well as for the VOA Mandarin television initiative begun in fiscal year 2012. The Committee recommends $400,000 in addition to funds already available for VOA and RFA Tibetan Services for special programming, particularly radio programming, to enhance coverage of events in Tibet. The Committee directs the BBG to consult prior to implementation of such special programs. The Committee also recommends funding to continue current VOA and RFE/RL programming to Central Asia and for the new VOA and RFE/RL program to that region. The Committee recommends the budget request for the expansion of Middle East Broadcasting Network’s television programming to Egypt. If BBG’s fiscal year 2014 budget request proposes to reduce current programs to the PRC or Central Asia in favor of new program models, the Committee directs BBG to include in the CBJ an assessment of the effectiveness of the new programs as compared with existing programs. The Committee does not support the proposed BBG digital media development initiative.
North Korea- The Committee recommends not less than $8,960,000 for international broadcasting to North Korea.
Proposed Reductions- The Committee does not support the following reductions and terminations proposed by BBG and includes adequate funding to sustain current levels: reductions to staffing, broadcast hours, and original program hours of VOA and RFA East and Southeast Asia services, including Mandarin and Tibetan; discontinuation of VOA Cantonese broadcasts; closing of the BBG Poro medium wave transmitting station; the consolidation and reorganization of VOA Central News and English Division; realignment of BBG shortwave and medium wave transmissions; reductions to staffing and radio broadcasts of VOA Georgian, VOA Turkish, and VOA Ashna; termination of radio broadcasts of RFE/RL Tartarstan, Bashkortostan, Avar, Chechen, and Circassian; and transition to Russian-language broadcasts to the North Caucasus. The Committee supports the proposed reduction in TV Marti operating costs, including the termination of the Aeromarti contract, as long as such action will not reduce its current broadcast schedule of 166 weekly hours.
Strategic Priorities- The Committee is concerned that BBG’s broadcast priorities do not fully align with U.S. foreign policy priorities. For example, the fiscal year 2013 budget request reduces broadcasting to Asia at the same time the Secretary of State has called for expanding engagement with Asia, particularly East Asia. The Committee directs BBG to submit, not later than 180 days after enactment of this act, a report on how BBG’s broadcast policy reflects input from the Department of State and other relevant agencies, and further directs BBG to include in its CBJ the linkage between broadcast and foreign policy priorities for any proposed language service changes.
BROADCASTING CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS
|Budget estimate, 2013||8,591,000|
The Committee recommends $8,850,000 for Broadcasting Capital Improvements.