- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

We interrupt the nonstop news about the War on Terror for a bulletin from the battlefront of public diplomacy, otherwise known as the global Battle for Hearts and Minds.

This just in: According to a little-noticed line in its 2007 budget, the Bush administration has proposed pulling the plug on just about all of the Voice of America’s English-language broadcasting and telecasting. Unless smarter heads in Congress intervene, this means the United States will take a giant step in the wrong direction — at the worst possible time.

A world of listeners will lose English-language programs that allow them to hear for themselves perhaps the best example of what American-style democracy is all about.

By way of explanation, readers first need to know that for once we are discussing a topic in which a number of Washington journalists, myself included, are not disinterested bystanders.

For almost two decades, we have comprised a rotating panel of journalists — liberals, conservatives and somewhere-in-betweeners — who appear in groups of three on “Issues in the News,” a radio show discussing Washington and world events. We pick the topics and critique official actions as we see fit.

VOA beams the show globally via shortwave and other frequencies. (We are paid nominally for our time, $100 for a panel member and $150 for the panel’s host — figures that have not been changed for at least a quarter-century.)

At a time when al-Jazeera and China Radio International are adding English programming, the United States is going the other way. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. international broadcasting agencies, announced increases of 13 percent for funds for Middle East broadcasting networks and 5.3 percent for the overall VOA.

Then, “faced with the increased costs of expanding critically needed television and radio programming to the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, the board has had to make some painful choices,” the board announced.

As a result, it said, the English-language radio programs on VOA News Now will be eliminated. (Funding will continue only for VOA English radio beamed to Africa, and a special program for beginning English-language users that features a very limited 1,500-word vocabulary, spoken very slowly. The VOA’s English Web site will also continue.)

The board then unintentionally proved its own misjudgment, saying: “The budget reflects the board’s commitment to English-language programming in the medium of the future, the Internet, and for excellence in Special English programming. Research shows that millions more are benefiting from Internet programming than from shortwave transmission, which VOA News Now relies on.”

It is correct: Shortwave broadcasting is old-tech (yet still widely used, especially in rural impoverished areas). And the Internet is not just the medium of the future, in many places that future is now. Moreover, there is also a medium of the future within the Internet — streaming audio and video. Millions will soon listen to or view programs not just on home computers or laptops, but on their cell phones — which are becoming the communications instrument of choice in poor countries.

So, if millions of English-speaking people in Muslim countries and other places in the emerging world are watching the Internet, what English-language programming will there be for them to watch? Precious little — if it is all being scrapped in a shortsighted (see also: short-listened) effort to save a few bucks ($9 million) in the interim. They will not be able to see the living demonstration of what democracy in action is all about — brought to them by a government in power but not above listening to its critics on all matters of war and peace.

“That’s a good point,” said a senior professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican. “We’ll have to take a look at that if we’re going to salvage that sort of program.”

That staff member, Mark Helmke, an expert on public-diplomacy issues, has advocated ending patchwork reforms and undertaking a complete review of U.S. global communications strategy. He has also suggested the VOA perhaps should become a sort of international C-SPAN, airing unfiltered views for and against government policy.

A government showcase for democracy — that’s one of the most intriguing and purely positive ideas heard in a capital city where negative and partisan intrigues too often prevail.

Martin Schram is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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