Congressional Battle Brewing Over VOA Mandarin Service (to China) Cuts
Posted by Author on February 17, 2011
A fight may be brewing in the U.S. Congress over plans announced this week to end the Voice of America’s shortwave broadcasting to China.
Prominent conservatives have spoken out against the plan, which would see VOA move all its Mandarin-language services to the Internet. In addition, a Democratic member of Congress told VOA Wednesday he will urge the speaker of the House of Representatives to block the plan.
The proposal was part of the U.S. government international broadcaster’s proposed budget for the coming year, which also includes plans to shut down VOA’s Cantonese and Croatian-language services.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA’s parent organization, said it was implementing “a cost-effective and market-specific strategy” that also involves improving the agency’s worldwide transmission network and “finding efficiencies within current operations.”
However, critics of the proposal say it is short-sighted for VOA to cut its shortwave broadcasting to China at a time that Beijing is spending billions to expand its own international broadcasting abilities. They also question the logic of an all-web strategy when China maintains the world’s most effective Internet censoring capacity with its so-called Great Firewall.
David Wu, a Democratic member of Congress from Oregon, told VOA Wednesday that he is “utterly opposed” to any reduction in VOA’s Mandarin service. He said he will raise the matter with John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, and with Frank Wolf, chairman of the House or Representatives committee responsible for the BBG’s budget allocation.
Wu noted that Congress will make the final decision on the BBG budget. He said he doubted the cuts would “survive the congressional process.”
A Republican congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, also opposed the cuts in an interview published Wednesday in the Washington Times newspaper. He described the plan as “another alarming sign that America is cowering before China’s gangster regime.”
In the same article, conservative talk show host and former BBG member Blanquita Cullum said, “This is not the time to retreat. This is the time to advance and reach out with more broadcasting.”
S. Enders Wimbush, chairman of the BBG’s Strategy and Budget Committee, defended the decision during a hearing in the U.S. Congress on new technologies Tuesday.
He said the audience for shortwave in China over the past few years has been barely measurable, while the country is now the largest Internet-using society in the world. He said the shortwave mission was being shifted to Radio Free Asia (RFA), also supervised by the BBG, which will now be able to operate on better frequencies and with better time slots.
He said the agency has not stopped broadcasting to China but has “recalibrated” so as “to get to where the audience is, to hit the right audience with the right broadcasts at the right time on the right frequencies and on the right platforms.”
Those arguments are not persuasive to employees of the Mandarin service, who will see their staff cut by 45 positions, or 57 percent.
In a set of talking points distributed to reporters, the Mandarin service employees say the cuts will damage U.S. national interests at a time when China has spent $7 billion over two years to expand the official Xinhua news agency, CCTV television and People’s Daily newspaper across the United States.
The talking points argue that VOA has been the leading international broadcaster in China for nearly 70 years and that its Chinese listenership is at least three times greater than that of RFA. They say the staff cuts will hurt the quality of programming regardless of how it is transmitted to China.
They also say the cuts will free up “tens of thousands of jamming stations around China.” They say that will leave China, which already has the world’s largest “Internet police force,” with more resources to block VOA Internet services and remote device operations.
BBG spokeswoman Letitia King rejects that argument, pointing out that China is also highly effective at blocking shortwave broadcasting. She also says the BBG is deeply engaged in developing web anti-censorship technologies and that “we are leaders in that field.”
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