Last week, an exhausted, retreating Georgian soldier was
overheard asking, "Where are our friends?" Given that only days before
the conflict--and for the first time in over 60 years of
broadcasting--the Voice of America's (VOA) Russian-language radio
programming fell silent, this was a legitimate question. Russian is
the principle language in both Russia and large swaths of Georgia,
a region plagued by media censorship and human rights violations.
Kremlin-controlled media outlets, meanwhile, filled the news and
information void. As a result, Georgia plunged into a media
blackout as the government shutdown broadcasting of Russian TV and
blocked websites in the ".ru" domain.
Sadly, this is a significant, but not unexpected, failure. In
recent years, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has slashed
funding for programming in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and
Central Asia in favor of broadcasts in the Middle East and Asia. It
has also outsourced broadcasting to semi-private entities with
dubious track records. Additionally, the Russian government has
pursued a campaign to eliminate U.S. broadcasts by intimidating and
harassing VOA's local, private-sector partners. Consequently,
America has--literally and figuratively--lost its voice in the
region at a critical moment.
In 1942, the Voice of America opened its first broadcast,
announcing: "Daily at this time, we shall speak to you about
America and the war. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you
the truth." Since then, VOA has played a unique role
among U.S. broadcasting entities. It is the only agency mandated by
law that explains U.S. foreign policy, presents "responsible
discussions and opinion on [U.S. policy]," and offers a "balanced
and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and
institutions." Unfortunately, VOA has fallen into decline
since the end of the Cold War and, in particular, since the demise
of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1999.
Authority for U.S. broadcasting now rests with the BBG. Under
the BBG's tutelage, the global audience for U.S. broadcasting has
increased by 75 percent (from 100 million in 2001 to 175 million
today). This growth, however, has occurred almost
exclusively in the Middle East and Asia, at the detriment of
broadcasting in other regions.
This disproportionate growth is the direct result of new funding
priorities, as well as outsourcing. The BBG has outsourced many VOA
programs to semi-private entities in the Middle East, claiming they
are less bureaucratic and attract larger audiences. Unfortunately,
these organizations, namely, Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra television,
have suffered from several scandals due to biased reporting and
mismanagement. Thus, while attracting larger audiences,
these semi-private entities are inadequately representing America
In contrast, funding for VOA broadcasts in Eastern Europe, the
Caucasus, and Central Asia has either flat-lined or declined. Take
into account the massive devaluation of the dollar abroad (over 30
percent against some currencies) and there is little wonder why VOA
is bleeding programs and personnel at a staggering pace. Over the
past several years, VOA has ceased virtually all English broadcasts
and cut programs in 21 other languages (mostly in the three
aforementioned regions). This was after more than a third of VOA's
employees signed a petition in 2004 protesting the "dismantling" of
Last month, Congress attempted to stop even more cuts. Citing
concerns for the region's freedom of speech, the Senate
Appropriations Committee condemned the BBG's latest budget request
that would not only eliminate VOA Russian language programs, but
also terminate broadcasts in Ukraine and significantly cut back
those in Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. The committee
subsequently approved legislation explicitly funding programs in
each of these countries. Yet without any public announcements, and
on the eve of conflict between Russia and Georgia, the BBG ceased
VOA's Russian-language programs anyway.
In its stead, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a
semi-private entity operating in the former Soviet Union, has been
tasked with continuing radio broadcasts in Russian. While RFE/RL
has a much better track record than Radio Sawa or Al-Hurra, the
organization has proven uniquely vulnerable to the Kremlin's
crackdown on independent media.
Since coming to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin has systematically
brought the country's media under control of the state or
state-friendly businesses. In addition, Russia remains one of the
world's most hostile environments for independent journalism. For
instance, Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent investigative journalist
who had written about Russian human rights violations in Chechnya,
was infamously killed execution style in Moscow in 2006.
Politkovskaya's murder was not an aberration; over the past 15
years, Russia has become the third deadliest country in the world
for journalists to operate in, behind only Iraq and Algeria.
This environment has proven disastrous for RFE/RL, which depends
on local partners to broadcast its programming. Citing license
violations and unauthorized changes in programming format, Kremlin
regulators have forced most of its local partners to stop
broadcasts. One Russian station manager commented, "It's sad
because the programs were very popular. ... The owners decided that
they would rather have their license, because if they kept the
programming they would have been in trouble." As a result,
three-quarters of the radio outlets provided by private companies
have terminated their partnership with U.S. broadcasting over the
past two years alone.
Take the Power Back
Despite such daunting obstacles, it is not too late for the
United States to reassert its broadcasting presence. Congress and
the Administration must do the following:
- Establish a doctrine for U.S. broadcasting. Currently,
the BBG lacks clearly defined strategic objectives. Congress and
the Administration should delineate the mission of U.S
broadcasting, specify the rolls of each organization (i.e., VOA and
semi-private entities), define the target audiences, and create a
process for targeting, clearing, and assessing messages.
- Reform the BBG. Since its inception, the BBG has
struggled to organize U.S broadcasting entities. This has resulted
in short-sighted program cuts and waste of public funds. Congress
and the administration must seriously reexamine the structure and
function of the BBG.
- Modify broadcast funding. Funding for broadcasting has
increased significantly in recent years to over $700 million this
year. Congress must ensure that this funding is
spread to other regions outside the Middle East and Asia. In
addition, it should reconsider the policy of outsourcing funding to
semi-private entities rather than VOA.
Lifeline of Freedom
U.S. international broadcasting, and in particular Voice of
America, is needed now more than ever. In its annual report on
press freedom, Freedom House described the past year as one of
"global decline." Of a total of 64 countries surveyed, one-third
had a press that was "not free." Consequently, U.S.
broadcasting must continue to serve as the lifeline of freedom in
these regions, provide uncensored news, explain U.S. foreign
policy, and tell America's story.
Helle C. Dale is Deputy
Director of Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies and Director of, and Oliver L. Horn is a
Research Assistant, in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for
Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage
Glassman, "U.S. International Broadcasting."