Since the early 1940s the Voice of America (VOA) has broadcast uncensored news to the people of China. If the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has its way, VOA’s China service will go off the air on Oct. 1.
Prominent democracy activist Yang Jianli described the proposed cut in VOA service as “bad news, extremely bad news. It’s a blow to the common people. It’s bad news to Chinese human rights and democratization.”
The BBG is in charge of all U.S. civilian international broadcasting. On Feb. 14 the BBG sent its proposed fiscal year 2012 budget to Congress, and the proposed cuts in VOA’s China service are part of that budget.
VOA’s Cantonese service—radio, TV, and website—will be cut entirely. VOA’s Mandarin service currently broadcasts eight hours of radio and one hour of TV daily. The Mandarin service will be cut back to a website only.
According to VOA’s website, VOA’s mission is to be a “consistently reliable and authoritative source” of “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” news.
China certainly needs accurate, uncensored news. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) scores China as 168th and 175 countries—near the very bottom—in its 2009 Press Freedom Index. In 2011 RSF lists China as having 30 journalists and 77 netizens imprisoned.
Yang spoke about how important VOA’s China service is to the Chinese people. “A large number of Chinese are used to listening to VOA for the news they need. There are many commentary programs and panels. It helps Chinese analyze the news and understand the news in China.”
An article on the BBG website says part of the fiscal year 2012 plan is to “expand efforts to move VOA to an all-digital broadcast platform.”
Yang believes VOA’s current shortwave radio format suits the people of China much better than digital broadcasting. “It’s more secure and safer [than using the Internet]. They’re harder to track. If you’re on the Internet and you make some movements, it’s possible to track you. But listening to the radio is relatively safer.”
Yang also pointed out that you can listen to the radio while driving, cooking, cleaning, or running errands—which is not possible with Internet broadcasts in China.
A source inside the VOA says the staff is confused and disappointed by these cuts. “Everyone was very shocked by the news,” the staffer said. “They feel that the Chinese Communist Party is the biggest risk to the United States, and in terms of national interests, why would you first cut your Chinese department?”
When Huang Yubin, a venture capitalist in China, blogged the news of the cuts to VOA on Sina Weibo, his post was forwarded over 900 times within hours.
“This means that the era of the United States government shortwave broadcasts to China is over,” he wrote. “But the Chinese government has spent huge funds in the last two years, around US$7 billion, vigorously increasing its propaganda to the West. The United States cutting off its own main propaganda instrument shows the ebb and flow of the standoff between the Chinese government versus the Western media.”
According to a source inside VOA, the move was explained to staff as a budget-cutting measure that the BBG says was an internal decision. The proposed cuts are already rumored to face some strong opposition in Congress and BBG will be asked to explain their reasons for blacking out the service to China.