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A democracy stalwart struggles to be heard; Voice of America works to spread its message in the age of the Internet

June 11, 2011

BY MARK LANDLER
9 June 2011
International Herald Tribune

© 2011 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.

When Voice of America quietly announced in February that it would shut down its shortwave radio broadcasts to China and shift the money spent on that program to the Internet, cellphones and other forms of digital media, it seemed like a sensible updating of a Cold War-era propaganda playbook.
But nothing is simple in the world of government broadcasting. Rep. Dana T. Rohrabacher, a Republican from California and a staunch critic of China, condemned the move, saying that it would deprive Chinese listeners of unfiltered news.
It amounted to a U.S. retreat in the face of Beijing’s growing global influence, he said.
With the Obama administration embarking on a much broader overhaul of the Voice of America and other official broadcasters — an overhaul that seeks to adapt their traditional diplomatic missions to the era of Facebook and Twitter — Mr. Rohrabacher’s furious response could be a foretaste of battles to come.
As part of its yearlong review, the administration is looking for ways to streamline and modernize Voice of America and its sister networks: Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra, and Radio and TV Martí. Each of those services has its protectors in Congress — Cuban-American lawmakers fiercely defend Radio Martí, for example — and they are likely to view any changes as threats.
‘‘It’s going to take some tilling of the ground,’’ said Walter Isaacson, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent agency that oversees the five networks. ‘‘Who knew that shortwave in China was a land mine?’’
While the need for the United States to get its message across to an often hostile world is greater than ever, Mr. Isaacson said, technological changes risk turning these services into relics of a bygone era, when embattled dissidents huddled over their transistor radios to hear scraps of information from the West.
To be sure, the broadcasters have made significant strides. Voice of America is inviting listeners to file reports about the uprisings in Bahrain on Facebook, while Radio Free Asia is aggressively developing technology to circumvent the firewalls that the Chinese government puts up to block its transmissions.
Yet the competition is relentless. In Egypt alone, 12 new commercial television channels have sprouted since the January revolt.
And in a brutal budget climate, the money for foreign broadcasting is shrinking.
‘‘The question is, ‘How do we compete in a world filled with Al Jazeera and other media entities?’’’ said Mr. Isaacson, a hard-charging author and media executive who once ran CNN and Time magazine.
His solution sounds like the blueprint for a state-owned CNN: create a state-of-the-art global newsroom that would gather all the programming generated by the five networks and send it out via television, the Web, social-media services, mobile phones — even shortwave, where that still makes sense.
To run Voice of America, Mr. Isaacson has recruited David Ensor, a former CNN and ABC News correspondent who is finishing a stint as director of communications and public diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
During his two years in Afghanistan, Mr. Ensor said, one of his biggest achievements was helping set up an Afghan company that offers SMS messaging services.
‘‘Whether it’s Voice of America or my previous employers, CNN and ABC News, they need to be on the Internet, on Flickr and Twitter,’’ Mr. Ensor said by phone from Kabul, where he was packing to leave.
The U.S. government may be the largest broadcaster that few Americans know about.
Although Voice of America and its sister networks reach 100 countries in 59 languages, they are banned from distribution in the United States by a 1948 law designed to prevent the government from turning its propaganda machine on its own citizens.
Mr. Issacson wants to rewrite that law, saying that it is obsolete in the Internet age and that it prevents taxpayers from seeing or hearing what they pay for.
In some countries, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe have iconic brand names and loyal audiences. But other, newer government broadcasters have a more checkered history.
The signals of Radio and TV Martí are jammed by the Cuban government and reach few people on the island.
Alhurra, an Arab-language satellite television service started by the Bush administration in 2004 to counter the influence of Al Jazeera, has struggled to build an audience in the Middle East.
It has also weathered criticism on Capitol Hill for airing the views of militant leaders from Hamas and Hezbollah.
Still, officials said, Alhurra attracted record numbers of viewers and hits on its Web site during the protests in Egypt, and it was the last network to carry a live feed from Tahrir Square in Cairo.
And its reporters are embedded with rebel fighters in Libya; a NATO airplane is beaming broadcasts into the country.
‘‘It has attracted a sizable new audience; the question is, ‘Can it keep that audience?’’’ said S. Enders Wimbush, chairman of Middle East Broadcasting Networks, which oversees Alhurra and its sister network, Radio Sawa.
The broadcasting board is also trying to reallocate its $748 million budget to account for new geopolitical realities.
In Latin America, for example, Radio and TV Martí soak up $30 million of the regional budget of $35 million. The board is also planning for life after Fidel Castro, with a proposal to use Martí’s studios in Miami to broadcast all over the region, said Martin Meehan, a board member.
‘‘It’s not the neatly defined world of the Cold War,’’ said Robert McMahon, a former news director of Radio Free Europe, which reinvented itself after the fall of the Berlin Wall by beaming into countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. ‘‘It’s a crowded, chaotic media marketplace.’’
China is emblematic of the difficult choices. The Mandarin and Cantonese-language shortwave broadcasts are closely identified with Voice of America; shutting them down will mean letting go as many as 45 longtime employees.
But officials said they reached only a tenth of one percent of the Chinese population.
Radio Free Asia, a so-called surrogate service that focuses on delivering news about China rather than the United States, will take over some of Voice of America’s better shortwave frequencies.
That is important, officials said, because some imprisoned political dissidents do get news from the service on transistor radios.
Yet ‘‘China has moved dramatically from radio to Internet,’’ said Libby Liu, the president of Radio Free Asia.
Ms. Liu said she spent most of her time trying to figure out how to get around Chinese government firewalls that make it difficult for young people to get Radio Free Asia’s broadcasts on the Internet or on their cellphones.
‘‘We have to put circumvention technology on mobile phones,’’ she said. ‘‘The key to reaching people electronically is breaching the firewall.’’
International Herald Tribune

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