VOA China scores small victory in battle for survival

By J. Michael Cole  /  Staff Reporter

Sun, Jul 24, 2011 - Page 3

The battle to keep Voice of America’s (VOA) Mandarin and Cantonese radio and TV broadcasts to China alive continued in the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday with a unanimous vote for a proposal that would secure money for the embattled China unit.

The authorization bill, sponsored by US Representative Dana Rohrabacher during a markup hearing, reserves US$13.76 million from the total budget for government-sponsored broadcasting next year to be strictly used for Mandarin and Cantonese radio and TV broadcasts.

That amount is equal to this year’s operational budget for VOA’s China unit.

“Of the funds to be appropriated to the Broadcasting Board of Governors [BBG], [US]$13.76 million is authorized to be appropriated only for Voice of America Mandarin and Cantonese-language radio and satellite television broadcasting,” it says. “Such funds may not be used for any other purpose.”

The BBG in February announced cost-cutting measures that would cancel VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China from October next year, while expanding other digital media efforts. That measure, which sparked accusations that US President Barack Obama’s administration was seeking to remove irritants to Beijing, is expected to cost about 40 jobs at the VOA China unit.

News of the cost-cutting measure came amid claims by officials in the Obama administration that new digital media, such as cellphones and the Internet, would be more effective platforms to reach Chinese.

The conclusion that traditional broadcasts in China were losing their effectiveness appears to have been reached after a series of surveys was conducted in China. Information obtained by the Taipei Times shows that as part of its International Audience Research Project, the BBG hired the services of New York-based InterMedia, a global communications and media research organization, which then relied on contractors in Beijing to conduct the survey.

Given the prospect of punishment facing anyone in China who admits to listening to VOA broadcasts, there are doubts as to whether the surveys can provide a true assessment of the broadcaster’s reach and effectiveness.

The authorization bill was included in the State Department Authorization Act for FY2012. It is now scheduled for a markup hearing at the Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.