Monday, May 21, 2012

The Broadcasting Board of Governors

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) provides news to millions of listeners around the world. The BBG is funded by Congress and this year the Obama administration requested $720 million for the agency. The BBG’s mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” According to the BBG’s website, its programming is heard by 187 million people a week.

BBG’s work is often described as “international civilian broadcasting;” this means that its programming is spoken, geared towards a foreign audience, and isn’t produced by the military. Their work is also referred to as “public diplomacy.” Public diplomacy refers to the interaction with the citizens of a country instead of working exclusively with a country’s leaders. Another common kind of public diplomacy is university study abroad programs.

I have spent much time consuming news produced by news agencies that are geared toward foreign audiences and funded by governments. I will discuss English language news organizations that are funded by foreign governments in a later post. I have come to the conclusion that international civilian broadcasting serves two primary functions.

1)    To spread goodwill toward the country that is funding the news by producing content that the listeners enjoy. I have witnessed this myself by seeing the reactions of my friends who enjoy RT and Al Jazeera English.

2)    To bring a perspective on the news that is missing from the broadcast area. The perspective could be missing due to censorship or because the view is not discussed by the domestic broadcasters.   

The BBG oversees five news organizations: Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti, and the Middle East Broadcasting network.

Radio Free Europe

Radio Free Europe’s mission is to “promote democratic values and institutions by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.”

Radio Free Europe broadcasts in 28 languages and 21 countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucuses. RFE’s website provides news in English on the countries in their broadcast area. They also have great content-specific blogs. These include Power Vertical and Persian Letters. Power Vertical focuses on the politics of Russia and its author, Brian Whitmore, produces a weekly audio podcast with Kirill Kobren, the managing editor of Radio Free Europe’s Russian Service.

Persian Letters is a brilliant blog about Iran written by Golnaz Esfandiari, who was born in Tehran. Earlier this month she discussed how Iran’s Supreme Leader’s religious decree against anti-filtering software, which Iranians use to access censored websites, was blocked because it contained the word “anti-filtering.” In order to access the decree online, Iranians would have had to use anti-filtering software. She concludes the post, “Just another day in the Islamic Republic.”

Back in September 2011 she discussed an NBC News report that was painted a very positive picture of Ahmadinejad. The segment described his daily routine and failed to confront him with any challenging questions about the policies of the Iranian government. NBC’s report is a good example of a common pitfall reporters face when covering when foreign leaders: if the journalist conducting the interview doesn’t have a good enough background on the country and the leader being interviewed, it can often result in uncritical praise and promotion.

Radio Free Asia

Radio Free Asia broadcasts in 9 languages and 6 countries throughout East and Southeast Asia. RFA’s English-language website produces news on the countries in its broadcast area daily. Like all of BBG’s English language websites, RFA devotes much of its coverage to human rights issues.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of Burma’s democracy movement, thanked RFA and similar services for providing news to Burma that she couldn’t have received otherwise.

“When RFA’s Burmese Language program began in 1996 I had little idea what a vital role it would play in my daily life. During my last term of house arrest from 2003 to 2010, RFA not only kept me in touch with news, views, and information from all over the world, it made sure I was constantly aware of events, thoughts, and personalities relevant to the movement for democracy in Burma. This is the particular invaluable contribution that a station like RFA, dedicated to the strengthening of democratic values and freedoms all over the world, has to make.

“As I congratulate the RFA Burmese language service on 15 years of excellent contribution to the cause of democracy and freedom, I would also like to thank the staff of the RFA for making it possible for me to roam the globe at a time I was confined to a very small place on this earth. I hope that RFA will continue to make its contribution to a freer, more democratically aware world and I hope very much that the day won’t be far off when RFA will join us in celebrating the dawn of democracy in Burma.”  

Voice of America

Voice of America broadcasts in 47 languages all over the globe. Like RFE and RFA, VOA has an English-language website that covers world news on a daily basis. Because VOA broadcasts in English, they have an impressive array of English-language audio and visual podcasts. VOA covers Africa with a depth that is difficult to find elsewhere.

TV and Radio Marti

TV and Radio Marti broadcast in Spanish to Cuba. Marti’s website is in Spanish and the organization doesn’t produce any English-language content. Marti is important because, as Human Rights Watch points out, the Cuban government controls all media outlets in Cuba.

Middle East Broadcasting Network

The Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) produces Alhurra television and Radio Sawa. The MBN broadcasts in Arabic to the Middle East. The websites for all MBN organizations are in Arabic. There is an Al Hurra channel that broadcasts region-wide and one that broadcasts exclusively to Iraq.

I support the BBG because the agency brings valuable information to people around the world who often do not have the ability to access it any other way. BBG’s work also produces goodwill toward the US by listeners who enjoy its programming. I believe that providing news to people in closed societies is an appropriate use of taxpayer money. The BBG is a valuable resource to those in the US who read their English-language websites as well.

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