Proposed budget cuts at Voice of America (VOA), which could spell the end of all its Mandarin shortwave broadcasts and cost dozens of jobs, are leaving Radio Free Asia (RFA), the US’ other main broadcaster to China, hoping for the best.
Earlier this month, the US’ Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — which is responsible for all US government or government-sponsored, non-military international broadcasting — announced a US$8 million restructuring plan for VOA, a move that, if approved by Congress, would see the elimination on Oct. 1 of traditional radio and TV broadcasting in Mandarin — and an end to all Cantonese operations — by the almost seven-decades-old broadcaster.
As VOA employees reel at the news, the Taipei Times asked RFA, another US broadcaster with a long history of supporting freedom and human rights in China, to share its views on those -developments and what they mean for the future of broadcasting into China.
“The proposed cuts send the message that VOA is changing its strategic approach to Chinese distribution in a challenging economic environment,” RFA president Libby Liu said in an interview from Washington on Wednesday. “If there was an unlimited budget, I’m sure VOA and RFA would be increasing rather than reducing the resources we dedicate to bringing accurate news and information to those who seek it in all of our markets — including China.”
Asked about the vacuum that would be created if the cuts at VOA were approved by Congress, Liu said RFA would be in a position to pick up some of the responsibilities.
“The cuts of VOA, if approved, will create an opportunity for RFA to move our shortwave broadcast hours to higher listening hours, which is what is proposed in the FY [fiscal year] 2012 president’s budget submission” by the BBG, she said.
However, the budget proposal does not altogether spare RFA, which would face constraints of its own.
“Even as RFA could benefit by moving to better listening hours, the RFA Mandarin effort would sustain significant reductions in both broadcast hours and frequencies,” Liu said.
The BBG budget states that as VOA shifts delivery of Mandarin content to the Web and other new media, it would strategically consolidate the network’s shortwave transmissions to ensure availability of peak listening hours for RFA Mandarin. As such, RFA would continue radio broadcasting in Mandarin and assume VOA’s preferred broadcast hours, while realizing a significant reduction in its overall transmission expenses.
This, the report says, would be accomplished by reducing broadcast hours, decreasing the number of frequencies utilized simultaneously and minimizing the power levels used for each transmission.
RFA’s requested budget for FY2012 is US$39.05 million, from US$37.56 million this year. However, this doesn’t show the entire picture, as there are hidden budget cuts to RFA operations — its transmission budget is housed in the Office of Technology, Services and Innovation (TSI). The Restructure Broadcasting to China plan, under which the transmission network and resources for broadcasts to China would be realigned, would result in a budget reduction of US$3.2 million for the TSI, thus affecting RFA operations.
“This is a consequence of a tight budget environment. Therefore, RFA is facing cuts in the current budget submission and is likely to face cuts at any time when resources are tight,” Liu said.
And aside from belt-tightening at home, there is always the main client, China.
Staff at VOA had previously mentioned the growing pressure they were facing from the Chinese government, which on certain occasions had led management to encourage self-censorship.
It has been widely reported, that among other activities, China jams shortwave signals from international broadcasters such as RFA and VOA, blocks “sensitive” topics on the Internet, and intimidates journalists and media outlets to self-censor.
“Chinese pressure and censorship tactics make our job very difficult, both in getting information out of China and delivering our content back into China via multiple delivery platforms — radio broadcast, satellite audio and via the Internet,” Liu said.
However, intimidation by Beijing has not had a chilling effect on RFA’s commitment to its mandate.
“Our content has not been diluted or otherwise affected by Chinese pressure,” she said. “To the contrary, our commitment and efforts are reinforced by the challenges we face.”
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