More than 30 years have passed since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about the “Soft Voice of America” in an article that first appeared in National Review on April 30, 1982. Incredibly, today we appear again to be headed in the direction bemoaned by Solzhenitsyn all those years ago. While the budget for international broadcasting has certainly grown since Cold War days, it is again in a downward trend as leadership contemplates budget cuts of $17 million to $720 million in the President’s FY 2013 budget.
Deep cuts in broadcasting are projected, including a number of broadcasting services to countries that are undeniably deprived of free media—Tibet, for instance. President Obama’s proposed budget comports badly with the aspiration stated in the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) 2012–2016 Strategic Plan to become the “world’s leading international news agency” by 2016. While broadcasting to fragile and repressive societies is being cut, other accounts have been spared, like management. Furthermore, in December, the BBG struck a $50 million deal with Gallup to do audience research (conducted for decades by Intermedia), and the consulting firm Deloitte is being paid handsomely for producing a merger plan of Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network that has not yet been approved by Congress.
Thanks to the editors of National Review Online, who recently reposted Solzhenitsyn’s compelling article, we can revisit the arguments made by the author of The Gulag Archipelago. His arguments carry as much weight today as they did back then. Solzhenitsyn wrote:
VOA, Radio Liberty, and the other Western broadcasters should be considering: the inner state of the people toward whom the broadcasts are directed, their spiritual hunger, their frustrations, their aspirations. Their main need is for knowledge. Information in the Soviet papers and on Soviet television is distorted beyond recognition. Those who live in the Soviet Union know, in a general way, what is happening in the world, but they know nothing of what is going on in the neighboring town, in the neighboring county…Not to know what is happening in and to your own country is crippling.
Instead of the Soviet Union, we might today substitute China, Tibet, or parts of Latin America, all of which are slated for deep cuts. Years ago, Voice of America (VOA) gave up on broadcasting to Russia, having ended shortwave transmissions and finding their broadcasts blocked from the AF and AM markets by the Russian government.
The new proposed cuts include:
- 70-plus positions from broadcasting in English and the English newsroom, which will result in the elimination of Worldwide English, turning it into an Internet and social media feed.
- Total elimination of the Cantonese service, which takes the VOA out of the political and information arena in big chunk of China. This is at a savings of only $965,000.
- Cuts of 10 positions in Dari and Pashto, the primary languages in Afghanistan.
- Cuts of a major part of the Tibetan service, which will signal to the Chinese that the U.S. has effectively abandoned Tibet.
- Cuts in Turkish, which at this point is operating only on the Internet.
- Cuts in Georgian, a major buffer region and a country that Russia invaded in 2008. This is also at this time an Internet-only operation.
- Cuts in Azeri, which at this point is Internet-only.
- Major cuts in Spanish, affecting both the Latin Service of VOA and Radio Marti, which is likewise owned by the U.S. government but is located in Miami, broadcasting to Cuba and federally funded. This comes at a time when Iran is extending its broadcasting throughout the region.
- Cuts in the Bangladeshi service, part of a region that remains highly volatile.
Congress needs to take strong action to reverse the trends outlined in the President’s budget. U.S. International Broadcasting continues to have many champions on the Hill. If they don’t, the United States will be sending signals of retreat in areas where Iran, China, and Russia are surging.