The Trump administration’s budget proposal for the U.S. Agency for Global Media for fiscal 2020 reflects indifference—if not disdain—for the agency whose self-proclaimed mission is to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
The spending blueprint released on March 18 would reduce the budget for the agency, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, from $808 million to $688 million, a 15 percent reduction.
At a time when information warfare from international rivals, such as Russia and China, is an increasing challenge, the leadership of the agency itself and President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts warrant intense scrutiny.
Among the unfortunate casualties of the proposed cuts are Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Georgian Service, Tatar-Bashkir Service, and North Caucasus Service.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty cuts take the semi-independent broadcasting entity from $124 million to about $86.8 million in 2020. Reductions will also hit their Balkans Service by eliminating operations in Montenegrin and Macedonian.
These may be small language services, but their function is critical, indeed central, to the mission of the U.S. government’s international broadcasting. Independent media are still in a developing stage in Georgia and the Balkans.
As for services aimed at the Caucasus, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty may be the only alternative to government media. Populations are starved for any independent, reliable news.
Blogging at Window on Eurasia, former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty assistant director Paul Goble makes an important point:
“The Putins and the Kadyrovs of this world will certainly be delighted by the Trump administration’s proposal,” Goble writes, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his protege, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. “But no one in Washington (outside the Russian Embassy, of course) should be pleased. They should recognize how important such broadcasts are to reaffirming what the United States stands for and how important that is for our friends in these places.”
Nor is this the first time the U.S. government has blundered in the post-Soviet space.
The George W. Bush administration in 2007 announced plans to cut numerous Voice of America services to the former Soviet republics, including Georgia. That drew the protests of 11 former VOA directors and members of Congress. The following year, Russia invaded Georgia, and the U.S. Congress reversed the Bush administration’s proposed cuts.
The Trump budget proposal and the snail’s-pace efforts to replace the Obama-era leadership of the U.S. Agency for Global Media could well be rooted in a lack of respect for the agency and its work.
While the mission of informing the publics in countries without independent media is still an important aspect of U.S. foreign policy, the execution has been uneven, and the blatant anti-Trump bias among the leadership and journalists of the agency has undermined its credibility and effectiveness.
Nevertheless, Congress needs to take a close look at the administration’s budget proposal. There’s much at stake here, beyond the politics of Washington.