“Radio Free Asia [RFA] broadcasts, like an educator, have brightened our hearts… They have opened our eyes. China always wants to keep the Uyghurs ignorant of the world. But now we understand democracy, human rights, and freedom. RFA broadcast means more than food, drink, and air to us because it gives us hope and inspiration. We hope RFA increases the broadcast time in the Uyghur language.”
The above quote and numerous supporting comments from other RFA listeners clearly prove the importance of international multilingual broadcasting. Although radio may seem anachronistic and government-funded international broadcasting can’t help but raise the specter of propaganda, unbiased multilingual broadcasting is now more important than ever. The current U.S. administration has made it clear that it no longer wishes to be the “world’s policeman,” chronic vacancies at the State Department are undermining longstanding U.S. diplomatic objectives, and worldwide abuses of human rights are on the rise, from China’s gulags to Venezuela’s repressions. In the absence of governmental initiatives to promote American values, broadcasters and other influencers should step up their efforts to promote freedom and democracy.
Radio Free Asia is funded through an annual grant from the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), an independent U.S. agency. With a budget of $808 million, USAGM oversees all government-funded news organizations—five news networks with 3,500 journalists broadcasting on radio, television, and the internet in 61 languages—that together broadcast to 100 countries and reach an estimated audience of 345 million people. These news networks include VOA, which broadcasts in more than 40 languages; TV and Radio Marti, which broadcast to Cuba; Arabic-language networks Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and Radio Free Asia. There is a legislative firewall that is intended to prevent interference by U.S. government officials in the work of these networks, and their mission is defined as “providing reliable journalism to audiences otherwise deprived of uncensored, accurate press.”
The 2020 federal budget would double the annual allocation for RFA’s Uighur-language service, from $2 million to $4 million, which looks like a bargain, especially when you consider that RFA’s annual budget is only $44 million of U.S. overseas aid spending of about $20 billion a year.
However, it’s only a bargain if the agency remains independent. The Senate has been considering the nomination of Michael Pack as USAGM CEO. Pack, a conservative filmmaker who worked closely with former Trump advisor and executive chairman of Breitbart News Steve Bannon, told senators during his nomination hearing that he would be able to resist pressure from the president to promote favorable coverage, but it may be prudent for the Senate to consider another, less partisan nominee.
In these times of isolationism, we need to reach out across borders even more and proudly flaunt the diversity of this nation. America’s popular culture and the will of its people have wielded enormous international influence, leading to increased global liberalism over the last 50 years. The perception of a nation is often determined by its leaders—think of how Putin has shaped international attitudes to Russia—but Americans are the experts of mass media, so it is up to us to communicate our values to the rest of the world in languages they understand, and without imposing our agenda on them.