Voice of America on Mute

VOA supervisory board seeks to slash editorial broadcasts in FY2014 budget

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• September 19, 2013 11:59 am


Voice of America (VOA) is on track to eliminate all of its Persian-language editorial broadcasts to Iran if its supervisory board’s 2014 budget recommendation is approved by Congress, according to an internal memo obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The development is part of a larger effort by management to quietly phase out the airing of official U.S. government policy positions on the taxpayer-funded international broadcast services, sources say.

The Office of Policy, a five-person department at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) that produces the official U.S. government editorials aired on VOA, would have its budget slashed by nearly half if the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ proposal goes forward.

The proposed cuts would "gravely impair" VOA’s ability to fulfill its public diplomacy mission, gut the office staff, and potentially violate federal law, according to a May 31 memo sent from IBB’s Office of Policy Director Charles Goolsby to IBB Director Richard Lobo.

Congress mandated in 1998 that VOA broadcast editorials reflecting the U.S. government’s position as part of its public diplomacy mission.

The policy office’s editorials, which provide the government’s stance on human rights and current foreign affairs issues, have long been a source of contention inside VOA and the International Broadcasting Bureau. Critics argue that the editorials detract from VOA’s efforts to appear objective.

"A lot of the management [previously worked at] CNN. They see their function as a pure news organization and resist being looked at as a tool for U.S. public diplomacy," Helle Dale, a senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation, said.

"It seems pretty clear to me that this proposed budget cut of 46 percent, which is massive, is part of a longer term strategy to eliminate U.S. policy from the mix of programming," Dale added.

The cuts outlined in the board’s 2014 budget recommendation "would be devastating on the Office of Policy and its ability to carry out its mission—the presentation of United States Government policies as required by the VOA Charter and by [Congressional mandates]," Goolsby wrote in the internal memo.

Goolsby added that the office would have to reduce the number of editorials it produces from roughly 750 a year to fewer than 400. He said it would be forced to cut its Persian-language video editorial, View From Washington Persia, which, combined with a proposed elimination of the radio service to Iran, would end VOA Persian-language editorial broadcasts.

The cuts would also eliminate the Office of Policy’s English language website, which Goolsby wrote would "deny the growing number of VOA services that do not have a radio means of carrying the editorials on the internet" and put the Russian service and others in non-compliance with congressional mandates.

The memo also noted that the policy office was targeted for the largest percentage of cuts out of any IBB department, despite having the smallest budget at $936,000 in the 2013 fiscal year. The cuts would reduce the budget to $500,000.

"The damage […] is very catastrophic," Goolsby wrote. "I understand that budget cuts across the [departments] must be made if required by Congress, but I do not understand why the policy office is being made to take such a disproportionate share of the cuts."

When contacted by the Washington Free Beacon, Goolsby said he was not allowed to discuss the memo or how the proposed cuts would impact the policy office.

A spokesperson for the Broadcasting Board of Governors said she would not comment on internal correspondence.

"[Goolsby] has one perspective on the budget as opposed to the larger agency," spokesperson Letitia King said. "We have advised him not to discuss an internal memo."

IBB Director Richard Lobo said in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon that the funding would not violate VOA’s congressional mandate.

"The proposed reduction in funding for the Office of Policy in the President’s FY14 budget request would not prevent VOA from meeting its legal requirements and is a component of the reductions in positions being proposed across the agency, including offices throughout the IBB," Lobo said.

But at least one member of Congress has taken notice. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.) urged the Broadcasting Board of Governors to reconsider its recommendation in a Sept. 12 letter to Lobo.

"The cut, if implemented, would leave only a skeleton staff and would seriously degrade the ability of that office to carry out its mission," Rohrabacher wrote. "It appears that the Broadcasting Board of Governors gives little priority to the presentation of United States Government policy. I sincerely hope this is not the case."

There are concerns within the IBB about what the cuts would mean for the VOA’s public diplomacy efforts.

One official familiar with Office of Policy operations said the Office of Policy had already lost one-quarter of its staff since 2008 due to budget reductions.

"The fact is, the effect will be to make it virtually impossible to cover U.S. policy for a worldwide audience," the official said. "What will be left will be a rump staff that cannot do anything near the amount of work and production of policy that they do now."

In addition to editorials, the policy office also produces public service announcements and informational requests on foreign terrorists wanted by the U.S. government.

"It’s the management that asked for this," the official added. "It’s a very long budget. It would be too bad if it escaped the congressional notice that this would have a major effect on the public policy, the presentation of policy of the U.S. government that was mandated by law."

Public diplomacy experts said they were puzzled by the broadcasting board’s proposal.

"It is insane. Here we are trying to figure out what to do to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and the single most effective thing we can do is to encourage dissident forces within Iran to bring about regime change internally," John Lenczowski, founder of the Institute of World Politics and a former State Department official during the Reagan administration, said.

"The fact is that it is a national security mission, it’s a foreign policy mission," he said. "We do not need a U.S.-government-sponsored CNN."

Dale said she considered international broadcasting "to be one of the primary tools for U.S. public diplomacy."

"At a time when we have this raging civil war in Syria and Iran is causing trouble on all sorts of fronts, you just scratch your head and say ‘Why don’t we want to address the people of Iran at this point?’" she said.

Lenczowski said the policy office budget cuts are part of a larger problem of the U.S. government failing to prioritize public diplomacy.

"The larger public diplomacy policy questions address the problem of whether it is going to be Al Jazeera, or Russian radio, or Chinese television, or whoever it is, out there that’s going to explain to the world what American policy is. Or are they going to hear it from us?" Lenczowski said. "These broadcast stations and internet sites are the only unfiltered news that gets into the minds of millions of people."