If the wave of democracy sweeping over the Middle East has taught us anything, it’s that a well-connected and informed citizenry is a powerful force for democracy - more so than any military force a nation can muster. Why, then, is America preparing to pull the plug on a long-running information lifeline relied upon for decades by millions suffering under the authoritarian boot?
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), among other broadcasts, is preparing to implement what some inside observers have termed a “strategic disintegration plan” - marking America’s exit as a bona fide force in international broadcasting. Troubling components of the plan, as stated in the fiscal 2012 budget submission, include eliminating language programming such as Mandarin and Cantonese and cutting back dramatically on critical modes of broadcasting by both hours and frequencies.
In the age of the Internet and satellite television, it may seem antiquated to be discussing shortwave broadcasting. But the fact is that millions around the world rely on our shortwave broadcast programming as the only alternative to state-controlled media. This is particularly true in the worst or poorest of the closed societies, such as North Korea. Where access to the Internet and television broadcasting is unreliable or nonexistent, shortwave radio is the only alternative - and America’s only strategic option for continuing to get information to the people. The BBG seems more intent on communicating with rulers than with the people.
The BBG is ignoring the digital divide - the gap between those who have effective Internet access and those who don’t. We often think of the digital divide as the result of economic or infrastructure-related issues. But the divide frequently is created by authoritarian regimes that routinely block content or entirely cut off Internet access. It is easier and cheaper for despots to shut down the Internet than it is to jam radio.
Ample statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrates how America’s international broadcasting fills the digital gap with news and programming independent of the ruling regime.
In most parts of Myanmar, international shortwave radio is more popular than domestic radio; up to a third of Myanmar’s citizens tuned in last year.
In North Korea, the most recent refugee survey measured regular audiences at 17 percent for VOA and RFA despite the government’s constant attempts discredit them - and despite the draconian punishment for listening. Defectors say the best way to help North Korea is to get more shortwave radios into the country.
In the Tibetan and Uighur regions of China, rural citizens tune into shortwave broadcasts and nomads use solar-powered radios or satellite audio to listen. Even in the urban areas of Lhasa and Urumqi - where the signals are almost completely jammed - the news travels via word of mouth.
In Russia, where the BBG ended programming weeks before Russian military forces invaded the Republic of Georgia, subsequent survey data indicated that sole reliance upon a VOA Russian website resulted in a wholesale disintegration of its audience base.
The BBG plan works only in a blue-sky, best-case scenario. It ignores effective countermeasures arrayed against television and the Internet - and limits U.S. International Broadcasting’s ability to react in real time to emerging crises. Our experience has taught us that relying on in-country third parties, including television stations and Internet service providers, to distribute content is risky because content can be blocked or edited or the Internet pipeline simply can be shut off.
And if the plan doesn’t work, the decision to eliminate shortwave broadcasting is nearly irreversible. Once America has released these frequencies, they will be acquired in the free market by those who will make robust use of them. Moreover, once VOA lets go more than half of its Mandarin Service, where will it get broadcasters if there is another Tiananmen Square massacre? When we realize the critical nature of this mistake, there will be nothing we can do - no going back.
Public access to information from worldwide sources empowers citizens of all nations to make informed decisions and exposes dictators for what they are - power-hungry, illegitimate and increasingly scared of their own people’s desire to have a say in their government. Now is the time to increase worldwide access to information - especially when a void is created by other broadcasters’ budget-driven cutbacks. This is not the time to pull the plug.
Blanquita Cullum was a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors from 2002 to 2010.