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Op-Ed: Cuba keeps Voice of America and Marti reporters away

Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, will lead the U.S. delegation to Cuba this week, but Voice of America (VOA) and Radio and TV Marti reporters are not likely to be given visas by the Castro regime to travel to Cuba with Ms. Jacobson. They were not there for the just-concluded visit by the delegation of six U.S. Democratic lawmakers led by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island were on the trip, as well as Representatives Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Peter Welch of Vermont.

There has been no recent public protest from the Obama Administration about the Cuban visa ban for journalists working for U.S. government-funded news organizations. The Voice of America and Radio and TV Marti also have not complained publicly, and neither did the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency in charge of both and other U.S. media outlets serving audiences in mostly information-denied countries.

The lack of any public mention of this issue by the Obama Administration strongly suggests that it wants to keep it out of the public view. It also suggests that the administration had failed to negotiate upfront specific steps for more media freedom for the Cuban people as part of the prematurely announced, inadequately negotiated and one-sided deal with the Castro regime.

In general, the administration also has failed to present a convincing public diplomacy message at home and abroad that the change in U.S. policy toward Cuba has a strong component of support of human rights for ordinary Cubans, including free speech and free press.

(When during the Reagan Administration, the White House had decided to try to normalize relations with the communist regime in Poland, part of the carefully negotiated deal was for a VOA reporter to travel to Poland with then Vice President George H. W. Bush. I covered his 1987 trip and interviewed both the U.S. Vice President and Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.)

According to the BBG, VOA Central English News Service and VOA Spanish Service applied for journalist visas the day President Obama announced the change in US-Cuba policy. These visas have not been granted. Radio and TV Marti did not do put in visa applications immediately, but the Martis are now apparently in the process of officially requesting again visas for Miami-based reporters to travel to the island.

The Martis covered the trip of the U.S. delegation led by Sen. Patrick Leahy using their independent stringer-reporters in Cuba. Voice of America reported briefly from wire service dispatches that the trip was taking place. But over the holiday weekend, VOA did not provide online any substantive details in English, Spanish or any other language. It failed to mention that American lawmakers had met with Cuban dissidents. Voice of America coverage from Cuba on Saturday, Sunday and Monday was brief, woefully inadequate and one-sided as the human rights aspect of the U.S. visit was not covered over the weekend in online reports. U.S. taxpayers and worldwide audiences deserve more from VOA than repeats of basic news facts that can be found online even in countries without fee media.

The Martis did better, but their coverage was only in Spanish (the station broadcasts only in Spanish) and not worldwide like VOA’s broadcasts and multi-lingual websites. The Martis interviewed some of the dissidents that had met with the U.S. delegation, including the lawyer Laritza Diversent, the blogger Miriam Celaya, the president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, Elizardo Sanchez, who presented a list of 24 political prisoners, and the president of Estado de Sats, Antonio Rodiles, who talked about the key members of the dissident movement that were left out of the conversations with the U.S. delegation. Interviews with Rodiles and Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White movement, aired on Radio Marti on Monday. The Radio and TV Marti website published an update Tuesday with more reactions from dissidents that met with the U.S. delegation.

It appears that for the press conference the U.S. congressional delegation had in Havana was one of the first occasions that some of Cuban independent media groups were allowed by the regime to access. One of them, Palenque Vision, provided news coverage for the Martis. But because of slow Internet connections with the island, editors in Miami were not getting these reports as fast as they could have if Radio And TV Marti were able to send their own reporters and equipment to Cuba. The Martis’ online coverage from Cuba over the weekend was also rather thin. They made up for it on Tuesday.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors faces immense management challenges. BBG Chairman Jeff Shell sworn in Tuesday respected journalist and media executive Andrew Lack as the Chief Executive Officer and BBG Director. He will lead the federal agency that oversees the five networks and broadcasting operations of U.S. international media. In addition to the Voice of America and Radio and TV Marti, they include non-federal grantee media entities: Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa). They are better managed than the federal part of the agency, which includes VOA.

With the lack of strong foreign policy and public diplomacy leadership from the Obama White House, the BBG, which has a bipartisan oversight board, and particularly the Voice of America, have a critical role in communicating to the world that Americans still care about media freedom and human rights.

This kind of reporting would be good journalism that is also good public diplomacy–not on behalf of any particular administration, but simply as a reflection of America as a nation through accurate, balanced and comprehensive news reporting.

But VOA has been so badly managed in recent years that it often fails to report on human rights stories even when the White House and the State Department do something right. Other recent VOA journalistic slip-ups included posting online a fake interview with a Russian opposition leader and a “column” in which a commentator employed by VOA bashed Israel and accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “eagerness to milk the Paris tragedy” in an “unseemly” fashion. VOA did not provide any challenge or counterpoint to these remarks and did not offer a clear disclaimer that the writer, who also strongly applauded the rapprochement with the Castro regime and supports a rapprochement with the Iranian regime, was only speaking for herself, and not on behalf of the VOA, the U.S. government or Americans in general. No strong supporter of Israel has an exclusive column on the VOA website to present an opposite view.

In reporting Tuesday on Roberta Jacobson’s upcoming trip to Havana, VOA stated twice that according to a public opinion poll, most Americans support the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. What VOA failed to say to its worldwide audiences was that at the same time most Americans do not support keeping the Castro regime in power. VOA again failed to mention in the report the meeting of U.S. senators with Cuban human rights activists. It would have been good journalism and good public diplomacy if VOA made these points to worldwide audiences.

There is much confusion these days about the Voice of America and U.S. public diplomacy, with some worried that VOA could lose its journalistic independence. But to me, good public diplomacy for America means good and independent journalism, not blindly promoting administration foreign policies that are open to strong domestic criticism in the United States.

Perhaps the Obama Administration’s aimless public diplomacy is to minimize talking about human rights issues in Cuba, but the Voice of America Charter does not say that VOA is a public diplomacy tool of the U.S. administration currently in power. The VOA Charter, which is U.S. Public Law, says that VOA must reflect all significant American opinions and institutions.

It is a different public diplomacy from the one most people talk and worry about. The essence of good national public diplomacy is for VOA journalists to question sometimes questionable policies of any administration while also accurately reflecting the position of the administration. In the long run, American interests abroad benefit from this kind of objective journalism.

That’s why BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and new BBG Director Andy Lack must demand openly and strongly Cuban visas for VOA and Radio and TV Marti reporters. Once nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, members of the bipartisan BBG Board are not working for or representing the administration. They are independent public servants of the American people. They must respond quickly and effectively to solve management problems at the Voice of America and at the enormous federal BBG bureaucracy which — in the words of Hillary Clinton — has made the federal agency “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”

One of the steps that Andy Lack can take immediately is to bring back to work Radio and TV Marti journalists who had been illegally fired several years ago by the previous management and whose reinstatement was ordered by federal arbitrators and courts. The now half-empty Radio and TV Marti newsroom in Miami needs more reporters and the whole agency needs a major management overhaul.

If anyone can right the BBG, Andy Lack certainly has the right credentials. VOA, the Martis, and other BBG media are important public institutions that serve America’s long-term interests. They keep the world better informed about America. They target countries that lack free media and/or represent a national security threat and spread anti-American propaganda.

One thing that the Voice of America and others must not do is to be timid against clever and brutal regimes, whether it’s Cuba, Russia, or Iran. I truly hope that the new BBG leadership will not allow it even if the White House says otherwise or doesn’t say anything at all. Be not afraid.

Ted Lipien is a journalist, writer and former VOA acting associate director. He is co-founder and co-director of the independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – which supports U.S. media outreach to overseas audiences lacking free media.

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