Delivered May 15, 2008
In the days before the recent cyclone hit Burma, state-run
newspapers continued to run their weather reports on their back
pages. The usual photos of junta generals dominated the front
pages. The Burmese meteorological service held a press conference
24 hours before the storm hit, saying that the winds were expected
to be only about 35 miles per hour. Nothing to give its people
reason for concern.
But Burmese who listened, in their native language, to shortwave
radio broadcasts from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, funded
by U.S. taxpayers, got a different story. They were told, starting
three days in advance of the storm, that the U.S. Navy's Typhoon
Warning Center predicted the cyclone's winds would be in excess of
100 miles per hour.
As Laura Bush would later put it, "It's troubling that many of
the Burmese people learned of this impending disaster only when
foreign media outlets such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America
sounded the alarm."
Troubling, but not surprising. The world has changed since the
Berlin Wall came down. Freedom, overall, has progressed in the past
20 years, and, as the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom
shows, economic freedom has made significant strides. But
there are still huge expanses of the planet where governments
keep the truth from their citizens-even when the truth can save
their lives. Basic freedoms- including free access to
information-are being denied by authoritarian and totalitarian
regimes like Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, China, North Korea, Cuba,
Iran, and Burma.
Freedom House just two weeks ago issued a report on press
freedom that called the past year one of "global decline." A total
of 64 countries, one-third of those studied, had a press that was
"not free," and for every advance up Freedom House's press freedom
scale, there were two declines. Speaking of political and civil
rights more generally, Freedom House called 2007 a "year of a
notable setback for global freedom." This was the first time in 15
years that global freedom had declined in two successive years.
It is in these tough, inhospitable neighborhoods where the
Broadcasting Board of Governors operates-on the frontlines of
freedom. This is a dangerous business. In the past year, four
BBG journalists have been killed, several were kidnapped, many
One of our Prague-based Iranian journalists returned home to see
her mother and was detained for eight months. She is now out of
Iran, but trumped-up charges have been brought and, if she does not
return for trial, her 90-year-old mother's home will be confiscated
by the regime. It is commonplace for families of our
foreign-born employees now living in Washington, Miami, and
Prague to be threatened and harassed by regimes in the nations to
which we broadcast.
An Information Lifeline
Our correspondents are in danger because they reach over the heads
of ruling juntas and similar regimes to large audiences. In fact, I
can announce today that the total weekly audience for BBG
programming has now exceeded 175 million-up from 100 million
before 9/11. Thanks to support from Congress and the
Administration, and thanks to the great work of our broadcasters,
our audience has increased 75 percent in seven years.
But the main reason for that increase in audience, I would
venture, is that what we do is needed more than ever. Our
broadcasters provide provocative, accurate, supportive,
high-quality content. The BBG finds a way to deliver that content
to the audience. In older, simpler times, our distribution
business throughout the world was fairly simple. We put up
huge towers and broadcast shortwave radio signals thousands of
miles. Those broadcasts were often jammed, but our engineers
figured out ways around the interference.
Today, shortwave is not nearly so widespread. We look at each
target audience separately and decide the best way to reach
it-given considerations of cost, geography, competition,
viewing habits, and politics. The means now include shortwave,
medium wave (AM), and FM radio, television beamed by satellite or
terrestrially, and Internet.
In Burma, shortwave is effective. Independent surveys done in
Burmese cities show a combined weekly BBG reach of 23 percent of
adults. That means that nearly one-fourth of Burmese tune in to RFA
or VOA at least once a week.
Last fall, with the regime's crackdown on Buddhist monks
and other peaceful demonstrators, RFA and VOA tripled their daily
broadcast hours- a move that strategically positioned them to
provide the expanded service the current crisis has required.
RFA and VOA, meanwhile, have extended an information lifeline to
the suffering Burmese. They have provided a steady stream of
in-depth reports on disaster relief efforts (including the junta's
ineptitude and avarice), health and safety issues,
conditions in hospitals, power and water supplies,
Just as important, our broadcasters told the Burmese that
the world was waiting to provide help, but that the regime was
denying entry to aid workers and supplies.
Our Burmese services illustrate what the BBG is all about. We
are a professional press that promotes freedom and tells the world
about American policy, principles, and society. We focus on
countries where free flows of credible information are scarce or
nonexistent. We broadcast in the vernacular- because the people we
most need to reach do not speak English.
This speech is my first major address since becoming the BBG
chairman. Next month will mark my first anniversary on the job. The
gap is a bit embarrassing. I have been silent for the past five
months because on December 11 President Bush nominated me as Under
Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and I
was advised to lay low. But I now think that is not a productive
way to operate, and I am happy to be here, speaking and later,
answering your questions.
In 2003, I served as a member of the Advisory Group on Public
Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, the Djerejian
Commission, as it was called. I believe our report is among the
best, perhaps the best, of the 30 or so that have
been done in recent years. It was an education, but it did not
prepare me for the breadth and depth of work that the BBG
undertakes: 60 languages, targeting over 80 countries, 3,400
employees, another 3,000 correspondents, and an annual budget
of $700 million- unquestionably, one of the largest news-gathering
enterprises in the world, and extremely important as for-profit
media abandon their international bureaus and pare their
Yes, the BBG has a structure that can only be called challenging
and a mandate that has ambiguities. But, in general, it is a
focused and effective organization that plays a key role in the
overall public diplomacy of this nation. Understand that it is a
constrained role, which perhaps is why we are so effective.
Let me say a brief word about our organization.
The BBG has three basic components:
- The first is the broadcasters-the name brands you recognize-the
Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL),
Radio and TV Martí, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and, our newest
organizations, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa.
- The second is the distribution and marketing arm, known as the
International Broadcasting Bureau, which operates our network of
radio transmitters and manages our relations with our affiliate
partners around the world. One way to think of the BBG is as a
platform-a magnificent collection of infrastructure that extends
into critical regions of the world and can be used to promote
freedom in inhospitable places.
- The third piece is the head of agency-the board that I chair-a
nine-member, part-time, bipartisan body of eight private citizens
(four Democrats and four Republicans) and the Secretary of
State (ex officio). Serving the Board is a small senior
staff, led by an executive director. The Board sets priorities,
allocates resources, manages relations within the government,
reviews and evaluates the broadcasters, and safeguards journalistic
The Board is critical to bringing communications know-how,
political savvy, and management wisdom to bear on the
broadcasting enterprise. It is, in fact, an excellent example of
leveraging the private sector to enhance U.S. government global
outreach. In this unusual set-up, the part-time Board members,
collectively, serve as CEO. As a result, these governors, and
especially, the chairman, are much more active than the board
members of most corporations or foundations.
Our purpose is to support freedom and enhance understanding of
the United States. We are not a propaganda organization. Our job is
to provide news and programming that meet high standards of
professional journalism, with accuracy, objectivity, and
We emphatically do not operate in a vacuum. No journalism does.
We have a purpose. We are an instrument of U.S. foreign
The conference report on the Foreign Affairs Reform and
Restructuring Act, which set up the BBG 10 years ago, explains the
need for a firewall between the State Department and BBG
broadcasters. That firewall is the Board. But the report also
clarifies that "establishing this structure is not to deny that the
broadcast entities are funded by the United States government-quite
obviously, they are." Nor should the structure lessen the
responsibility to "ensure that U.S. broadcasts are 'consistent
with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United
As Board members, we confer with the State Department and other
parts of government in order to understand strategic priorities. We
work closely with the U.S. Agency for International
Development. We sit on interagency Principals and
Deputies Committees. We are often asked by the State
Department, as we have been lately in the cases of Somalia, Burma,
Tibet, Kenya, Darfur, and others, to increase or initiate
programming. We pay close attention to the "foreign policy
objectives of the United States," as the law says we must.
But the programming remains the reserve of our journalists. We
tell the truth, even if the truth might appear harmful to U.S.
interests in the short run. Often, we hear from critics, "Why are
U.S. taxpayers paying for reports of bad news about
America?" Why report about Abu Ghraib, for example? There are
two answers: First, Congress and the President have required us to
work as an objective, balanced news organization, and, second, our
audience is sophisticated, and we have nothing if we have no
John Houseman, the first VOA director (a former colleague of
Orson Welles and later Professor Kingsfield in The Paper
Chase), set the tone for the next 66 years: The news that the
Voice of America would carry to the world in the first half of
1942, with war losses mounting, was almost all bad, recalled
Houseman. "Only thus could we establish a reputation for
honesty which we hoped would pay off on that distant but inevitable
day when we would start reporting our own invasions and
Objective Journalism Influences Audiences
VOA was founded to provide accurate and objective news to
Europeans propagandized by Nazi Germany. RFE/RL followed at the
onset of the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe. Radio and TV
Martí in the 1980s and Radio Free Asia in 1994 were
responses, respectively, to Cuban and Chinese communism. Most
recently, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa have come on stream as violent
extremism has intensified.
In each case, the historical impetus for our broadcasters has
been a national security challenge, necessitating greater support
for freedom and democracy overseas.
Our enabling legislation begins, "It is the policy of the United
States to promote the right of freedom of opinion and expression;
including the freedom 'to seek, receive, and impart information and
ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,' in accordance
with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human
The National Security Strategy of the United States makes the
promotion and securing of freedom internationally this
country's first priority. Why? "Free governments do not oppress
their people or attack other free nations. Peace and
international stability are most reliably built on a
foundation of freedom."
From our history and legislation, and our connection to
national security, it follows that being a free, professional press
to support freedom is our calling.
The standard definition of public diplomacy is "understanding,
engaging, informing, and influencing foreign audiences." The
first three items are evident for a journalistic organization.
But the fourth, in my view, is the reason we practice public
diplomacy at all. We believe that, by sticking to objective
journalism, we can, in fact, influence foreign audiences.
Consider BBG coverage of the recent uprising in Tibet. On March
10 and 11, when monks at monasteries near Lhasa began peaceful
protest demonstrations, RFA had the news first. On March 13,
when two monks attempted suicide at Deprung monastery on the
outskirts of Lhasa, and a hunger strike occurred at another major
monastery, RFA was again first with the news. Then, on March 14,
when violence erupted and the government crackdown began, RFA
broke the story of the first Tibetan protesters to be killed by
As The Wall Street Journal would document on April 29
in a feature story about RFA's coverage, "The earliest reports of
unrest in Tibet last month didn't come from a major newspaper, wire
service or TV station. They came from a U.S.-funded shortwave
But this was only half the story. As RFA and VOA increased their
combined radio broadcasting to Tibet from 12 to 16 hours per day,
and VOA doubled its satellite television coverage from one to
two hours daily, the broadcasters became a de facto
Tibetan-language news agency for the world. China jams radio
signals and blocks Internet access in Tibet. But it couldn't stop
the news about its repression from coursing through the viral
networks of the Internet.
Suddenly, major international media-including The Washington
Post, New York Times, AP, and Reuters-were
picking up RFA and VOA accounts and using them to drive their own
reporting. Scores of times this occurred. Pro-democracy NGOs were
also ready consumers and added to the secondary and tertiary
distribution of RFA and VOA news.
The crackdown contradicted China's pledges to respect human
rights and freedom in exchange for being awarded the 2008 Summer
Olympics in Beijing. There were demands for China to be held
accountable, for its officials to sit down with
representatives of the Dalai Lama. That's exactly what China
did earlier this month in Shenzhen.
Can the BBG lay claim for China's outreach to the Dalai Lama?
Well, we can claim that we reported the news that drove the
coverage that generated the international pressure on China. And if
we are looking for the impact of objective journalism on world
affairs in ways that advance the interests of the United
States, Tibet is an appropriate case study.
In recent years, there's been a good deal of focus on our Arabic
services, started only five years ago. After growing pains, we
think they are performing well. That's my judgment after two trips
to the Middle East late last year. Evidence comes from
research too. In Syria, a key target of ours, Alhurra TV and Radio
Sawa together reach 5.8 million weekly (61 percent of all
But we have huge audiences as well in Africa, where a good deal
of our coverage focuses on health. In Nigeria, VOA Hausa and
targeted English draw some 21 million listeners weekly. And the
list goes on an on: Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Venezuela, Morocco,
Somalia, Ukraine, Zimbabwe-all places where U.S. international
broadcasting is delivering the news to large,
Measures of Influence
Like you, I've heard that nothing is working in public diplomacy.
That is not true. A great deal is working, at State, at the Defense
Department, and elsewhere. And U.S. international broadcasting is
absolutely working. Why? In large part because we have been doing
it for a long time, and we know how to do it well. We are blessed
with superb managers. We stick to the mission, and we adjust
our tactics to meet the immediate challenges.
It is no wonder that we have an abundance of imitators-many of
them exceptionally well funded. As a research project, I hope
that Heritage can take a close look at some of these international
broadcasters, such as China International Broadcasting and
Russia Today, and terrorist media such as Al Manar, the Arabic
language Hezbollah network, supported by Iran.
When I talk about success, I don't mean just audience size. Our
research probes questions such as whether our audiences trust our
news and whether our broadcasts are helping to improve their
understanding of their world and America. On those two counts-and
on less tangible measures- the BBG is performing well.
Again, we know it's not just about the numbers. We have to get
into the content and circumstances of our broadcasting. So, let me
close by describing our work in three countries of critical
importance to U.S. national security: Iran, Iraq, and
Iran. Within a few months of
becoming chairman, I had a remarkable experience. I was asked
to be a guest on a program called "Roundtable With You," a call-in
show on Voice of America's Persian News Network (PNN). Sitting in a
studio in Washington, I was interviewed by a VOA host and then
took calls, live, from viewers in Iran. About two dozen calls over
the course of an hour, unscreened.
The callers, of course, were speaking Farsi, which was
translated for me. They talked about how grateful they were for
VOA's broadcasts, gave advice on how to improve them, praised
President Bush, discussed the conditions in Iran. "Roundtable With
You" is a regular feature on a network that beams seven hours of
daily programming into Iran-up from just two hours a couple years
ago. The latest program on PNN is called "Today's Woman." Last
week, the show's featured guest was one of Iran's top women
activists, while "Roundtable With You" interviewed an immigrant
from Iran who has become one of America's most successful insurance
agents, and "News and Views," PNN's flagship news program, provided
extensive coverage of the U.S. presidential election campaign.
Independent research shows that 28 percent of Iranian adults
tune in to VOA Persian TV at least once a week. They get our
programs by satellite receiver, even though, in most cases, just
owning such a receiver is against the law in Iran and respondents
are reluctant to give frank answers. In their native Farsi,
Iranians are learning-from VOA TV, VOA radio, and another popular
stream, combining music and public affairs from Radio Free
Europe called Radio Farda-about how their government is
supplying arms and training in Iraq (including Joint Chiefs of
Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen's recent warning about the
consequences of such provocations), about the true state of
their economy, about their regime's nuclear program, about
political prisoners. Just recently, President Bush went on VOA
TV and Farda to address the Iranian people directly.
How much does it mean to have a video link to the Iranian people
when there is a confrontation between East and West?
When five boats operated by Iran's Revolutionary Guard
confronted three American naval vessels near the Persian Gulf
earlier this year, VOA's Persian TV was on the air with film
coverage of the incident and commentary by U.S. officials and other
experts. VOA was able to illustrate the aggressive actions and tell
the Iranian people about the unnecessary provocation.
How important is U.S. international broadcasting to U.S.
policy in Iran? Listen to a leading State Department official:
Just one out of many examples of the extraordinary
usefulness and effectiveness of VOA Persian TV to the U.S.
Government came during the release of the recent National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iranian nuclear activities. I can
recall that within minutes of the release of the NIE text I was on
the air on the set of VOA Persian TV as the first U.S. official to
comment publicly about the NIE. I was able to provide a scathing,
detailed and complete denunciation of the actions of the Iranian
regime as reflected in the admittedly extremely poorly written NIE.
My interview ran at considerable length (frankly as long as I
wanted). Excerpts ran in news bulletins on VOA Persian TV and my
immediate access to VOA Persian TV set the tone for the coverage of
the NIE for the rest of the day. Afterwards I came on the program
live almost every day during that period…. VOA Persian TV is
the only direct access I, the State Department, or the USG in
general, have to the Iranian audience.
Iraq. Since Saddam Hussein
fell from power, media outlets have proliferated in Iraq, but most
are affiliated with political parties and personalities.
Iraqis turn to international media for accurate, balanced, and
credible information. At this point, in its history, Iraq needs the
services that the BBG provides.
Television is the main news source for Iraqis. That's why the
BBG has a 24/7 TV stream just for Iraq-Alhurra/Iraq-in addition to
Alhurra's pan-Arab stream that reaches 22 countries. The channel
provides targeted, in-depth news coverage that Iraqis want and
need. Its success is seen in steadily growing audiences, from 42
percent weekly reach in 2005 to 56 percent today. In fact,
Alhurra/Iraq now eclipses Al Jazeera in weekly audience. Also,
Alhurra is relatively unique in that it attracts substantial
audiences among Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds.
But Alhurra/Iraq does more than cover Iraq. It also covers the
U.S. And during this election season, it is important to share the
U.S. electoral experience-its unpredictability, its openness,
its grassroots nature.
Let me share with you some words (translated from the Arabic)
written by Sherzad Adil Yezidi in the Al Hayat newspaper
With the heated elections race in the United States, Alhurra
distinguished itself as the most professional and active satellite
TV channel among all the Arabic-speaking satellite channels in
covering the U.S. presidential primaries.
No wonder. It is a U.S. channel broadcast from Washington, D.C.
Regardless, it is doing very well and is adopting a striking
professional and objective methodology in its intensive,
detailed coverage of the progress of the elections, and its
internal and external interactions.
BBG's Iraq strategy has a strong radio component as well. Radio
Sawa broadcasts on local FM across the country and targets Iraqi
youth 18 to 30, with a mix of music and news. Radio Free Iraq, a
service of RFE/RL, focuses on an older demographic of
information-seekers. Radio Sawa has a weekly reach of 26
percent of adults; RFE/RL, 17
All told, BBG broadcasts on TV, radio, and the Internet attract
an unduplicated weekly audience of some 12,300,000 people, or 76
percent of all adults.
Afghanistan. Here, the U.S. and NATO are
increasing efforts to help the Karzai government as it faces a
resurgent Taliban, runaway opium trafficking, and massive
economic and infrastructure challenges. The Afghan people are
pessimistic about the country's direction. Support for the Taliban
is growing. Confidence in the U.S. and NATO has dropped.
Security, jobs, and electricity are leading concerns for all
As Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has said, "Our
counter-insurgency strategy rests on the belief that by
transforming the environment- helping to improve Afghanistan's
governance, transportation, and commercial networks-we can drive a
wedge between the people and the enemy and at the same time
reconnect the people to their government."
The role of U.S. international broadcasting is to keep the
Afghan people well informed of what is happening in their
country-both the successes they enjoy and the challenges they face.
We focus on the economic, political, and social issues of national
reconstruction-issues that matter to Afghans and the U.S. and NATO
Our programming reflects both U.S. strategic concerns and Afghan
interests. For example, RFE/ RL's radio schedule includes a program
on women's concerns; "In Search of the Missing," which tries to
reconnect families divided by war; a program promoting
religious tolerance; as well as traditional music, health, youth,
and roundtable discussions of political and economic issues.
VOA and RFE/RL broadcast nationwide 24/7 on shortwave, AM, and
FM in both the Dari and Pashto languages. In addition, VOA airs a
nightly hour-long TV program on state media, and it operates a
Pashto-only language service, called Deewa Radio, specifically for
the border region with Pakistan.
RFE/RL and VOA together are the foreign media leaders with an
impressive combined weekly reach of over 13 million people, or 76
percent of all adults.
Against Serious Setbacks
Freedom and democracy were on the march around the world after the
end of the Cold War, throughout the 1990s and into the start of
this century. But they are suffering serious setbacks now.
Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution, writing recently in
Foreign Affairs, has described "democracy in retreat"
around the world.
More and more countries into which we broadcast are denying
their citizens access to information through radio jamming and
Internet blocking. This group includes Belarus, China, Iran, Cuba,
and Ethiopia, among others. Under Raul Castro, the Cuban regime has
trumpeted such changes as allowing citizens buy computers. How
serious are these gestures? At this point, I am skeptical. A
government genuinely interested in its citizens' freedom
and welfare would let them hook those computers up to the Internet;
to let them own satellite dishes; and to stop jamming
broadcasts by Radio and TV Martí.
Some nations are projecting the image of allowing greater
access as their domestic media proliferate, but these are
media outlets whose content the regimes ultimately control. Russia
and China are primary examples. In Russia, we have lost more than
three-quarters of our radio outlets in the past two years because
of government pressure on private companies that partner with
BBG broadcasters. China continues to jam our radio broadcasts and
to try-though not successfully-to deny its citizens access to our
Mandarin and Cantonese Web sites.
We at the BBG see the retreat of freedom and democracy firsthand
everyday. Our language services are often among the very few
credible sources of news and information to which the world's
repressed peoples have access.
U.S. international broadcasting is one program- only one-in a
system of public diplomacy that tries to facilitate the achievement
of American interests through interaction with foreign publics. We
are by far the largest public diplomacy program, reaching the
largest number of people. We are venerable and consistent, and, in
my opinion, we do a very good job.
We present not just U.S. policies but, as the law requires,
"responsible discussion and opinion on those policies." The term in
the law over and over is "objective and comprehensive." Our
broadcasters "will present the policies of the United States
clearly and effectively and will also present responsible
discussions and opinion on those policies."
The BBG's entities are media with a mission. But, first and
foremost, they are journalistic institutions. They must be.
Otherwise, people won't believe them.
Otherwise, we would be unable, with credibility, to describe to
the people of Iran how their government is providing weapons
and training in Iraq and spending billions on a nuclear program to
the detriment of domestic economic stability; we would be
unable, with credibility, to tell the people of Tibet the course of
the uprising in their own country; we would be unable, with
credibility, to tell the people of Cuba who it is that the Castro
regime has imprisoned for advocating democracy.
And we would be unable, with credibility, to warn the people of
Burma of an impending cyclone, or to warn people throughout the
world of the cyclone-the figurative but hugely destructive one-that
strips them of their God-given liberties.
James K. Glassman is Chairman of the Broadcasting Board