Senator Feingold calls Radio/TV Martí -- to borrow a phrase -- "relic of the Cold War."

Posted: 03 Feb 2010   Print   Send a link
"As President Obama prepares his 2011 budget, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold is urging him to eliminate funding for a radio and television broadcast to Cuba, which virtually nobody tunes in to, as part of a larger effort to eliminate wasteful government spending. In a letter to the president, Feingold recommended eliminating the budget for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which runs Radio and TV Marti, citing the program’s ineffectiveness. Fewer than two percent of Cubans tune in to either Radio or TV Marti programming, while the U.S. has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the programming over the past two decades. ... 'This programming is a relic of the Cold War, falls short of journalistic standards and is a prime example of wasteful government spending at a time when we should be reducing the deficit,' Feingold said." Senator Feingold press release, 28 January 2010. See also Havana Times, 27 January 2010. And Radio Havana Cuba via Periodic26.cu, 28 January 2010.
     "Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. ... has a long-time opposition to TV Marti, a government-sponsored American station broadcast in Cuba to 'tell Cubans how great freedom is.' But the station has been blocked by the Cuban government since it started airing. Cutting the program could save $250 million a year, Dorgan said." Bismarck (ND) Tribune, 27 January 2010.
     "We’re fooling ourselves to think the U.S. government is going to influence the Cuban government or people through our existing means. This is a waste of time and money. Let’s try public diplomacy through private enterprise." Liz Harper, Americas Quarterly, 29 January 2010.
     Senator Feingold, usually an astute fiscal watchdog, is a bit off the mark here. Cuba, with one of world's most controlled media environments, has an unmistakable need for independent news. Internet and satellite television access have not yet reached the point where they can substitute for international radio, especially on shortwave, which has the advantage of reaching Cuba wirelessly. As for the fewer than two percent of Cubans tuning in, survey research in Cuba is obviously problematic, so results should be interpreted cautiously. Even if the audience is fewer than two percent, US international broadcasting has many language services with similar audience ratings. They make up in quality what they lack in quantity. The information reaches the larger publics through a two-step flow.
     To be sure, reforms are needed at Radio/TV Martí. VOA could resume responsibility for providing news to Cuba. Television could be dropped altogether -- although if black market satellite dishes continue to proliferate in Cuba, some sort of television product will be necessary. Or it might be determined that CNN en Español is sufficient, which certainly would save the taxpayers some money.
     Senator Feingold's scruitiny would better be directed towards the most prominent feature of US international broadcasting: duplication. In 24 languages, VOA and a Radio Free station both transmit. The most recent recent and most egregious example is the duplication of effort between RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal and VOA's Deewa Radio, both broadcasting in Pashto to the Pakistan/Afghanistan frontier region. (See previous post.) The BBG FY 2011 budget calls for the creation of "Radio Free Asia (RFA) video programming in Burmese, Tibetan, Mandarin, and Vietnamese." VOA already has video programming in three of those languages. The duplication just keeps growing and growing.
See previous posts on 27 November and 15 November 2009.