- - Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Should U.S. taxpayers’ money go to producing a promotional video for the Voice of America (VOA) Urdu Service featuring a zombie dressed as Uncle Sam, while a VOA English News video fails to show Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. John McCain visiting Ukraine?

I would call the bloodthirsty Uncle Sam attacking a Pakistani a perfect U.S.-VOA propaganda piece for the Taliban. If this does not call for management reform, I don’t know what does. A bipartisan bill in Congress, the U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490), is designed to return VOA and the rest of U.S. government international broadcasting to its core foundation. The bipartisan reform legislation should be enacted by the Congress and signed by the president.

Some VOA English newsroom reporters, however, are worried. The title of one op-ed penned by a VOA correspondent shouted: “Back off, Congress.” These reporters worry that Congress wants to turn VOA into a propaganda mouthpiece for whatever U.S. administration is in power. They should worry more about their decimated newsroom having hardly any experienced reporters left, U.S. news not covered and VOA already producing “propaganda,” but in support of America’s enemies.

I do not believe Congress wants U.S. propaganda. That would be completely counterproductive. House Committee on Foreign Affairs ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel of New York said Congress doesn’t want it. Committee Chairman Ed Royce of California and the rest of the committee don’t want it. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee does not want it. Saying that Congress wants VOA to spew out U.S. propaganda like Russia’s RT network spews out Vladimir Putin’s propaganda defies common sense. Republican members of Congress have no interest in giving the Obama administration a propaganda mouthpiece. Democrats also don’t want this for any future Republican administrations.

As someone who had worked at VOA as a journalist when it was part of the old U.S. Information Agency, I do not see H.R. 4490 proposing a link between VOA and public diplomacy that would be anywhere as strong as it was then. Still, I would make minor changes in the bill’s text and include in full the VOA Charter, which guarantees news independence, but also gives VOA its Washington and America news beat that Congress wants.

Otherwise, I strongly support the bill, because the current dysfunctional management wastes millions of taxpayers’ money on the bureaucracy while the mission of U.S. international broadcasting is compromised. Bureaucrats recently cut shortwave-radio broadcasts to the most vulnerable audiences, including Pakistan, without giving VOA program hosts time to even say goodbye and thank their audience for listening. More than $700 million is no small change to pay for the U.S. broadcasting agency described by Hillary Clinton as “practically defunct.”

How different VOA was when I traveled to communist-ruled Poland in 1987 with Vice President George H.W. Bush and took a train from Warsaw to Gdansk to interview Lech Walesa. I managed to lose communist secret police agents who were following me, interviewed the Solidarity leader and filed my report by phone.

Fast-forward to 2014. Crimea is illegally annexed by Russia, and bureaucrats in charge of the agency disregard the legitimate Ukrainian government in Kiev, ignore U.S. policy and public diplomacy, and order a poll among the frightened and intimidated population that has just experienced a major upheaval. The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ International Broadcasting Bureau then brags about the poll’s results declared as faulty by top independent experts in Russia, Ukraine and the United States. VOA English News repeats Mr. Putin’s propaganda points to the whole world based on this faulty poll, with no questions asked. It was pure U.S.-VOA propaganda in support of the Kremlin.

There may be hope if reforms happen. Some VOA language services, notably the VOA Ukrainian Service, do not violate the VOA Charter and perform remarkably well despite being denied resources by the ever-growing bureaucracy. Surrogate broadcasters, Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, likewise still do their job extremely well, but they are also being undermined by mismanagement at the federal agency.

Having myself listened to and compared VOA and Radio Free Europe broadcasts while growing up in communist-ruled Poland and later having placed Broadcasting Board of Governors programs on stations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, I can reliably say that VOA and Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty have completely different missions and do not belong together. Merging them under centralized management will not save money. H.R. 4490 offers the best solution in making surrogate broadcasters independent from the dysfunctional International Broadcasting Bureau bureaucracy.

Just as current and past VOA broadcasters, I want Voice of America to return to serious journalism that I used to practice with pride while interviewing liberty advocates such as Mr. Walesa and the man who would become Pope John Paul II. Congress should put the VOA Charter in the act, but it must also make sure by insisting that the charter, which is already U.S. law, is observed. Otherwise, $700 million of taxpayers’ money will go to waste. The world will see more zombie videos and news reports from Voice of America reinforcing propaganda from our enemies. This must not be allowed to happen.

Ted Lipien worked at Voice of America until 2006, with his last position as acting associate director.

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