Government executives who advise part-time presidential appointees at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) would want you to believe that silencing Voice of America radio to China is a great political and technological idea that is bound to displease the communist regime in Beijing. The savings would be used to expand Internet presence, or so they claim.
But theirs is a misguided proposal that would harm both the United States and pro-democracy forces abroad. It sends a strong signal to authoritarian regimes that Americans either don’t care about human rights or don’t know how to defend them. Not surprisingly, the Chinese communists already have greeted the BBG announcement as a defeat for America.
In justifying their decision, BBG officials claim that the audience for shortwave radio in China is small and declining. They base their claim on market research, which even their own analysts describe as unreliable. Those listening to VOA radio in China or Tibet are not likely to reveal such potentially harmful information about themselves to strangers.
Unlike radio, the Internet in China is being censored, and its use is monitored by 50,000 cyberpolice. Uncensored radio and the Internet are not competing against each other in countries without free media. Each has its own advantages. A similar attempt by the BBG in Russia to broaden the audience by downplaying human rights reporting in favor of more entertaining Web content while silencing VOA radio has produced an 80 percent drop in weekly audience reach.
The Internet is inaccessible for 750 million Chinese. A listener to VOA radio programs in China is not likely to be a Chinese with an iPhone who goes on shopping trips to New York but someone like Liu Xia, wife of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Kept under house arrest, she once succeeded in sending an email to a friend, in which she wrote, “I don’t know how I managed to get online.” She then warned her friend, “Don’t go online. Otherwise my whole family is in danger.” BBG officials turn their backs on people like Liu Xia when they claim that ending VOA radio to China would help them develop new media tools to reach a younger, Internet-using audience.
A Chinese free labor union leader like Poland’s Lech Walesa could be declared expendable by the BBG because he has no Internet and no higher education, is older than 30 and is poor. In the 1980s, Mr. Walesa did not have a fax machine, but he listened to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. The BBG points out that Radio Free Asia will continue shortwave broadcasts to China, but those are far less known, less popular than VOAprograms and more successfully jammed by the regime.
The same group of BBG bureaucrats proposed reducing radio to Tibet shortly before a violent crushing of demonstrations in the region. They cut VOA radio programs to Russia in 2008 just days before the Russian military attack on the Republic of Georgia. They made their proposal to end VOA radio and TV to China not too long before the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution. Can they be trusted with piercing the “Great Firewall” of Internet censorship in China if they cannot even protect VOA’s own websites from an Iranian cyber-attack?
The ability of the BBG executive staff to make wrong decisions has been so uncanny that simply by examining their program-cutting proposals, members of Congress easily could have predicted new outbreaks of unrest and assaults on free media shortly before they happened. Congress should not allow this group of managers to commit yet another blunder with a gift to the Chinese Communist Party as it celebrates its national holiday on Oct. 1, the proposed date for ending VOA radio to China.
Ted Lipien is a former acting associate director of the Voice of America. He runs Free Media Online.