What in the world is going on at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America (VOA)?
The BBG has started to exhibit a level of secrecy worthy of the CIA, clamping down heavy-handedly on internal communications. VOA, meanwhile, has joined other news organizations at the United Nations in endorsing the expulsion of an American investigative journalist.
Is this really behavior worthy of the U.S. agency supposed to embody the U.S. government’s commitment to freedom of expression? Of course not. Members of Congress, who are responsible for overseeing the agency, are increasingly frustrated with the way it is being run.
U.S. international broadcasting is a matter of national interest but hardly national security. Even so, on June 7 at a board meeting in Prague, the BBG voted to clamp down on disclosure of “deliberative information” between two or more BBG members or between agency staff and board members.
The meeting agenda called this a “Protocol to Prevent Unauthorized Disclosure of Confidential and Pre-Decisional Information.” “Pre-decisional” is the kind of word the KGB would have loved, potentially meaning just about anything the BBG leadership deems inconvenient for the public to know.
The BBG is ripe for leaks and whistle-blowing, which is undoubtedly the reason for the crackdown. However, instead of addressing internal problems, the BBG is trying to control the internal flow of inconvenient information.
There are plenty of problems to be addressed: The agency has abysmally low job satisfaction rates—among the lowest in the U.S. government, according to the Office of Personnel and Management. Furthermore, its management continuously defies the directives of Congress, which provides 100 percent of its funding. Blasted Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA) in a letter to the BBG in May:
I am at a loss to understand the BBG’s drive to constantly cut broadcasting despite increased appropriations from the Congress and despite clear bipartisan congressional intent in the case of China. The BBG has shown itself to be opaque in its decision making and incredibility tone deaf to Congressional priorities.
Also indicative of something wrong within VOA is its attack on investigative reporter Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press, who covers the U.N. By all accounts, Lee is an eccentric and difficult individual who nevertheless has a knack for covering the inner workings of the U.N. like no one else. Lee was recently expelled by the U.N. Correspondents Association due to a complaint against him by other reporters, including one from the VOA.
On June 29, VOA management upped the stakes by sending a letter to the U.N. urging the organization to deny Lee press credentials altogether. The letter, signed by VOA executive director Steve Redish, boils down to this: We don’t like him; his work is not up to our standards; and he keeps sending us annoying e-mails.
As an experienced journalist and leader of an organization dedicated to freedom of the press, it is difficult for me to make this request of you. But I would urge you to review Mr. Lee’s status as an accredited U.N. correspondent. I believe his behavior is impeding the freedom VOA’s correspondent and others need in order to report what they see and know from the United Nations.
Lee has not actually been accused by his colleagues anything illegal or unethical or anything else that could justify denying him his credentials.
As noted by Heritage Foundation U.N. expert Brett Schaefer, the U.S. government “absolutely should stand firm in protecting the principle of freedom of the press.” But as the BBG defends press freedom abroad, it seems to be doing the opposite at home, a deeply concerning trend antithetical to its core mission.