Cold War Lessons for Voice of America in China

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During the Cold War, it would have been unthinkable for the United States government to put in charge of U.S. international broadcasting through the Voice of America (VOA) an American businessman like Armand Hammer who had made millions for his company in various business deals with Soviet Russia. U.S. international broadcasting and business activities behind the Iron Curtain, even if perfectly legal under U.S. laws, were simply not compatible.

This prudent practice was abandoned under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), now called the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), giving rise to management scandals and questions about impartiality and credibility of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). Some past and current BBG and USAGM officials have had corporate business interests in China, Russia, and the Middle East. At the Hudson Institute panel on China-Vatican relations, Cold War Radio Museum founder Ted Lipien talked about the current VOA China problem while discussing briefly U.S. broadcasting to East Central-Europe during the Cold War.

He noted how the Polish Catholic Church dealt with communist propaganda during the Cold War and the different roles played in 1956 by the Hungarian and Polish services of Radio Free Europe.


Some of the favorite and still used regime tactics against their own populations and foreign public opinion are: deceptive and misleading propaganda, disinformation, creating divisions, divide et impera, infiltrating and controlling churches, and using religion to gain legitimacy and to triumph in the area of foreign policy and domestic and foreign public opinion.
Churches, therefore, must be forever vigilant. They must avoid making unnecessary far-reaching concessions and must have a clear and convincing public message in explaining their dealings with any repressive governments;they must engage in effective public diplomacy. They must at all times retain the respect and support of their members.

Thanks to Poland’s Roman Catholic Primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, and by the way, the Polish Service of Radio Free Europe under its director Jan Nowak, Poland avoided the 1956 Hungarian experience, while the Hungarian Service Radio Free Europe broadcasts were far less restrained and implied the possibility of active Western support for the Hungarian freedom fighters that was simply not feasible and not even contemplated by the United States or the West.
The vast difference between China and Poland is that in 1950 the Catholic Church in Poland was truly powerful, both in numbers and cultural influence even when it faced a tremendous threat from the Soviet-imposed communist regime. It also had a powerful and wise single statesman-like leader in Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.
Even without him, the Polish Church still had a lot of leverage. It could call on the population to take or not to take certain actions. The Polish Church had no media access, but every Sunday the bishops could reach and address millions of Catholic Poles. In the radio age it had no radio, but it had a powerful pulpit to speak directly to millions of people, at least one day a week, while Radio Free Europe and to a much lesser extent the Voice of America provided another channel for free, uncensored information.
Both Wyszynski and Wojtyla secretly communicated through intermediaries with the head of the Polish Service of Radio Free Europe, and I was able to interview Cardinal Wojtyla during his visit to Washington in 1976, two years before he became Pope.

In re-reading some of the documents while preparing this presentation, I was struck by how often Cardinal Wyszynski mentions Communist propaganda, its dangers and the need to counter propaganda lies with the truth.


Full video from the panel discussion, “China-Vatican Relations and Religious Freedom in China October 11, 2018 Event” can be seen HERE.

This Cold War Radio Museum video podcast summarizes the issues of Chinese government pressure on the Voice of America Mandarin Service broadcasters.

In my presentation last week at the Hudson Institute on the State-Church Relations in Poland Under Communism, the Vatican’s Ostpolitik, and the lessons of these historical events for today’s China-Vatican relations, (I must add that I’m not a China expert) I mentioned the plight of Voice of America Mandarin Service journalists who believed they were resisting pressure from Beijing to censor VOA reporting and and got punished by their own senior management in the Federal agency of the U.S. Government for wanting to air live a lengthy interview with a whistleblower. Senior management ordered them to cut short the interview and to limit the scope of questions. I wish more people would come to their defense or at least demand a full and transparent investigation.
I’m disappointed that outside media and press freedom organizations have not paid sufficient attention to how these VOA journalists are being treated, as well as to business interests in China and in Russia of a few among past and current officials in charge of VOA in its parent Federal entity, the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), formerly called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which on its own has has tried to interfere with and restrict domestic US watchdog reporting about its management failures—not to the same degree as the governments of China and Russia, of course, but disturbing enough, since this is a US government media outreach operation funded by taxpayers to promote press freedom abroad.
I’m Ted Lipien, independent journalist and writer, former acting associate director of the Voice of America, and co-founder of the online Cold War Radio Museum and pro-media freedom watchdog website BBGWatch.com.


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