The BBG-managed Voice of America (VOA) websites were hacked on February 21, 2011, apparently by the “Iranian Cyber Army,” as reported by PiratesWeek and Kim Andrew Elliott, a Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) employee who publishes his own private international broadcasting website, In 2009, VOA websites were out of comission for at least two full days during President Obama’s official visit to Russsia, also due to a cyber attack of an unidentified origin. Similarly, the VOA Russian Service website also came under a cyber attack with a pornographic photo being posted.
A few days before the Islamist cyber attack on the Voice of America websites, Blanquita Cullum, a conservative radio host and former member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), criticized the Obama Administration for planning to drastically reduce American radio news programs to China in favor of Internet-only news delivery to China by the Voice of America. Ms. Cullum wrote in an op-ed published by The Washington Times that by terminating long-distance shortwave transmissions, the government agency in charge of U.S. international news broadcasts is ignoring the digital divide between richer and poorer regions of the world and dismissing efforts by authoritarian regimes to censor the Internet. She charged that the BBG appears more intent on communicating with rulers rather than with the ordinary people who can’t afford or are denied access to the Internet.
The radio broadcasts set for termination are produced by the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia (RFA). They are funded by Congressional appropriations and overseen by the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors, a nominally independent federal agency which is consistently rated in official government-wide employee surveys as one of the worst-managed within the U.S. government. The Broadcasting Board of Governors is in charge of all U.S. civilian international news broadcasting, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN)—Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television.
In her Washington Times commentary, Obama bows to Chinese dictators, Blanquita Cullum, who had served on the Broadcasting Board of Governors during the George W. Bush Administration, has accused the current Board members and the Obama Administration of planning to cut off outside news to people still oppressed by communism. According to her and other critics of the planned termination of U.S. government-funded radio broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese, the President’s budget request of $767 million for the BBG for Fiscal Year 2012, represents a “strategic disintegration plan” – marking America’s exit as a bona fide force in international broadcasting.
The current BBG has nine members, all of whom have been appointed by President Obama. The Board also has the executive staff, whose top managers have been responsible for a number of financial scandals and journalistic blunders. While the BBG members were replaced after the new administration took office, the executive staff remained. They are the initiators and planners of the previous and the latest series of radio programming cuts in U.S. international broadcasting.
The current BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson is the former Chairman and CEO of CNN and former editor of Time Magazine. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton serves as an ex officio member of the BBG. The Board also has Republican members, including Dana Perino, the former White House Press Secretary to President George W. Bush, and Victor H. Ashe, the former U.S. Ambassador to Poland during the George W. Bush Administration. They were all nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate.
Blanquita Cullum, the only former BBG member recognized in the Congressional Record for being “a champion of the mission of U.S. international broadcasting,” argues in her op-ed column in The Washington Times that the BBG’s over-reliance on delivering news from the United States to countries without free media, using the Internet rather than a mix of radio, Internet and satellite TV, is both misguided and dangerous. She points out that “it is easier and cheaper for despots to shut down the Internet than it is to jam radio,” and accuses the BBG of “ignoring the digital divide – the gap between those who have effective Internet access and those who don’t.” According to AHumanRight.org, an NGO which strives to expand free access to news and information around the world, 7 out of 10 people do not have Internet access. AHumanRight.org estimates that almost 5 billion people lack Internet access.
Blanquita Cullum had been a strong critic of the BBG executive staff while she was still serving as a Board member and managed to prevent some but not all of the previously proposed broadcasting cuts. Other BBG members and their staff wanted to use savings from some of these programming cuts to hire their friends as public relations consultants for the BBG. Her fight against mismanagement at the BBG was recognized by Senator Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, in a statement placed in The Congressional Record.
“Chief among her concerns,” Senator Coburn wrote, “has been for the continuation of U.S. international radio broadcasts, the form of communication which to this day remains the most readily accessible and cost-effective means of communication for billions of oppressed people living in poverty.”
Senator Coburn has been a consistent critic of the way the BBG manages its broadcasting operations and spends public funds.
He has publicized examples of VOA broadcasts to Iran which, he charges, undermine U.S. policy and give a platform for anti-American propaganda. He has also charged that U.S. broadcasts in Arabic on Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television have also given “uninterrupted and unchallenged platforms to terrorists and other enemies of the U.S. and our allies.”
One of the most blatant examples of editorial mismanagement at the BGG, exposed with the help of Free Media Online, was the airing of statements by Holocaust deniers by Alhurra Television.
While the BBG members approve strategic plans and budget submissions to Congress, the recommendations for program cuts come from the permanent BBG executive staff. They were responsible in the past for proposing to reduce radio broadcasts to Tibet, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia. They have also been accused of failing to maintain editorial standards, which led to such journalistic blunders as the airing of statements by Holocaust deniers on the BBG-managed Alhurra Television for the Middle East. They also failed to prevent major financial scandals at the BBG-managed broadcasting entities.
In one of their most controversial moves in recent years, the BBG executive staff had sold the previous BBG members on the idea of eliminating VOA radio broadcasts to Russia. In her commentary in The Washington Times, Ms. Cullum pointed out that after the BBG had ended VOA Russian radio programming in 2008 just several days before Russian military forces invaded the Republic of Georgia, subsequent survey data indicated that sole reliance upon a VOA Russian website resulted in a wholesale disintegration of its audience base. Ms. Cullum had opposed these programming cuts when she was still a member of the BBG.
Americans for U.S. International Broadcasting, a group of current and former VOA and BBG employees and free media advocates, have started a petition drive to convince Congress to reject the BBG’s and the Obama Administration’s proposals for eliminating shortwave radio broadcasts to China.
Some members of Congress and their staff are also concerned about media censorship in China and the Chinese government’s efforts to control Internet access in their country. Senator Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana, issued a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff report — “Another U.S. Deficit – China and America – Public Diplomacy in the Age of the Internet”— which details China’s initiatives to censor the Internet while expanding its influence in the world. The report was prepared under the direction of Senior Professional Staff Member Paul Foldi, who visited the region.
ANOTHER U.S. DEFICIT
—CHINA AND AMERICA—
PUBLIC DIPLOMACY IN THE
AGE OF THE INTERNET
TO THE MEMBERS
COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN RELATIONS
UNITED STATES SENATE
ONE HUNDRED TWELFTH CONGRESS
FEBRUARY 15, 2011
XinhuaNews, the official press agency of the Chinese government, will soon be allowed to open a multi-floored office in Times Square and already broadcasts from an AM transmitter in Texas. By contrast, Beijing limits the Voice of America to a single, two-person office there, blocks the opening of a VOA bureau in Shanghai. Furthermore, China forces both VOA and Radio Free Asia to beam in on Short Wave radio from distant locations well outside its borders. China also routinely jams these transmissions as well as blocks both VOA’s and RFA’s Internet sites. Meanwhile, Congress has provided tens of millions of dollars to assist in Internet freedom issues including Internet Censorship Circumvention Technology, but little of that money has been allocated by the State Department in spite of clear bipartisan support.
VOA insiders told Free Media Online that the BBG executives who make decisions to eliminate radio broadcasts have no experience of living under communism and do not understand the psychology of authoritarian rulers and those who suffer under oppressive regimes.
The Taipei Times reports that the morale of the Voice of America Chinese Service journalists is at its all-time low.
According to sources at VOA, who spoke with The Taipei Times on the condition of protecting their anonymity, the work environment had turned sour as pressure from management led to on-air hosts self-censoring themselves.
One instance involved the invitation of World Uyghur Congress leader Rebeiya Kadeer for a show, which resulted in the show’s host being slapped on the wrist afterward for failing to invite a Chinese official to provide the other side of the story.“The Chinese propaganda is already available for all to listen to,” the source said, adding that VOA did not need to serve as a platform for the views of the Chinese Communist Party and in many cases VOA served as one of the few means for minorities to voice their message out.The source also said it was highly unlikely that Chinese officials invited to participate on a VOA show would have agreed to do so.Eventually, employees discovered that the pressure from management, which on certain occasions resulted in self- censorship, was the direct result of a sustained campaign of complaints from Chinese diplomats.
“[Yielding to their pressure, and now shutting us down] sends the wrong strategic message to Beijing,” a source said, adding that regardless of whether Congress passed the budget cuts or not, “this should serve as a warning to management at VOA not to give up on human rights in China.”
The Voice of America Chinese Service journalist may very well be right that the BBG has been succumbing to the pressure from Chinese diplomats who complain to the State Department.
Chairman Walter Isaacson made news last October by naming China’s and Russia’s official media as America’s “enemies,” alongside state media in Iran and Venezuela, but he quickly disavowed his comments, most likely after being rebuked by high-ranking officials of the Obama Administration, either at the State Department or at the White House. He used such strong language while calling for more money for the BBG to combat foreign propaganda.
Mr. Isaacson criticized the state media in China and Russia at the 60th anniversary celebration for Radio Free Europe (RFE), which he credited with contributing to the end of the Cold War. [A transcript of the speech is available here.] When questioned by The Cable, a FOREIGN POLICY (FP) blog about his “enemies” comment, Isaacson apologized for the remark, while saying that the “enemies” he was referring to were in Afghanistan, not the several countries he mentioned.
“I of course did not mean to refer to, nor do I consider, that Russia, China, and the other countries or news services are enemies of the U.S., and I’m sorry if I gave that impression,” he told The Cable. The BBG has also published a statement of clarification on its website.
The incident showed that not even the BBG Chairman is protected from censorship by autocratic regimes. Their diplomats are putting pressure on the State Department, which under the Obama Administration seems far more willing to carry their message of censorship to the BBG Chairman and to get him to comply with their demands.
Ted Lipien, former Voice of America acting associate director and VOA journalist during several Democratic and Republican administration, said that President Obama’s refusal to meet prior to his official visit to Beijing with the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama has send a strong message to human rights activists and government censors alike in China and other countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. According to Lipien, the tone set by the Obama Administration has also contributed to self-censorship and unbalanced reporting at the Voice of America and other broadcasting entities managed by the BBG. An analysis conducted by Free Media Online showed that the Voice of America has violated its Congressional mandate in reporting on the ongoing debate in Congress about the new START treaty with Russia on arms reductions by heavily promoting the pro-treaty statements by the Obama Administration officials and almost completely ignoring serious objections to the proposed treaty raised by Republican lawmakers.
The Voice of America reporting on the U.S. debate about the proposed START treaty would make the Voice of Russia radio and Russia Today television proud, said Ted Lipien who now heads Free Media Online, a California-based NGO which supports free and independent media and reporting worldwide.
In 2008, Free Media Online launched GovoritAmerika.US, a Russian-language website which aggregates U.S. government and non-government media reports. The website was created in response to the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ decision to cancel VOA Russian radio broadcasts, an action taken just 12 days before the Russian military attack on the Republic of Georgia. Free Media Online has been highly critical of the BBG’s management of U.S. international broadcasting, terminations of radio broadcasts, and over-reliance on the Internet without being able to protect its websites from cyber attacks.
Links to sign a petition to save U.S. news radio broadcasts to China.
This report was first published by FreeMediaOnline.orgTruckee, CA, USA, February 21, 2011.
From the Federalist:
I got a call from one of my very reliable confidential sources inside the Cohen Building late this (Monday) afternoon. Apparently, someone launched a major cyber attack against VOA websites. The attack lasted for approximately five hours…roughly noontime to 5:00pm our time.
In place of VOA websites, what came up was the Iranian flag, wafting gently, with a list of the VOA web pages that we knocked out. The message on the screen, in both English and Farsi, was to tell VOA to stop interfering in Iranian internal affairs.
Take note that the attack occurred on a Federal holiday. They must have known or surmised that doing so would slow down the response time.
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