VOA and the new US budget

There a bunch of stories out there today highlighting US budget increases on defense spending and cutbacks on other initiatives, particularly ones that have to do with spreading democratization or simply information. We've written of the demise of VOA at the expense of Al Hurra and Radio Sawa before, but now it seems they put the final nail in the coffin:

At a time when al Jazeera and China Radio International are adding English programming, the United States is going the other way. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. international broadcasting agencies, announced increases of 13 percent for funds for Middle East broadcasting networks and 5.3 percent for the overall VOA. Then, "faced with the increased costs of expanding critically needed television and radio programming to the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, the Board has had to make some painful choices," the broadcasting board's announcement went on to say.



As a result, it said, the English-language radio programs on VOA News Now will be eliminated. (Funding will continue only for VOA English radio beamed to Africa, and a special program for beginning English-language users that features a very limited 1,500-word vocabulary, spoken very slowly. The VOA's English Web site will also continue.)



The board went on to unintentionally prove its own misjudgment, saying: "The budget reflects the board's commitment to English-language programming in the medium of the future, the Internet, and for excellence in Special English programming. Research shows that millions more are benefiting from Internet programming than from shortwave transmission, which VOA News Now relies on."



It is correct: Shortwave broadcasting is old-tech (yet still widely used, especially in rural impoverished areas). And the Internet is not just the medium of the future, in many places that future is now. Moreover, there is also a medium of the future within the Internet - streaming audio and video. Millions will soon be listening to or viewing programs not just on home computers or laptops, but on their cell phones - which are becoming the communications instrument of choice in poor countries.



So, if millions of English-speaking people in Muslim countries and other places in the emerging world are watching the Internet, what English-language programming will there be for them to watch? Precious little - if it is all being scrapped in a shortsighted (see also: short-listened) effort to save a few bucks ($9 million) in the interim. They will not be able to see the living demonstration of what democracy in action is all about - brought to them by a government that is in power, but not above listening to the views of its critics on all matters of war and peace.
Incidentally, while on the issue of military spending trumping all else, I watched the BBC documentary Why We Fight last night. I recommend you don't bother unless you want to hear well-known facts about neo-cons, Cheney, Halliburton etc... It's amazing that the producers of the documentary don't make the effort to secure any new or little-known information and does not do any statistical digging into the role of the armaments industry in politics. And then there's the slightly offensive images of obese Americans eating at diners whenever clueless "Middle America" is mentioned. Its one saving grace is a pretty decent soundtrack. I had hoped for something of the caliber of the flawed but fascinating The Powers of Nightmares (download it legally here), and was sorely disappointed.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.