Mission of US-funded broadcasts in Cuba debated

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu May 22 15:35:57 UTC 2008

Mission of US-funded broadcasts in Cuba debated

By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ – 1 day ago

MIAMI (AP) — Two decades after Congress established the U.S. Office of Cuba
Broadcasting, lawmakers and experts still can't seem to agree on the
program's mission. Should its TV and Radio Marti networks send the communist
island unbiased news about Cuba and the outside world? Or should their
stories only support the U.S. government's policy toward Cuba, as they
mostly do now? The dispute is part of a larger debate over the U.S.
government's foreign broadcasts, but nowhere is it more noticeable than with
the Martis. The taxpayer-funded Cuba broadcasts, which receive $34 million
annually, belong to a network that includes the Voice of America, Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty and Alhurra, among others. Most are run by veterans of
top media outlets who are quick to defend their journalistic principles.

Still, the Martis' congressional charter states the broadcasts must be
operated "in a manner not inconsistent with the broad foreign policy of the
United States." The other broadcasts have similar mandates. Jeff Trimble,
executive director of Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the
broadcasts, says the charter calls for promoting democracy, "through the
journalistic mission. You have open information. ... It's not to do the
short-term policy issues of any particular administration." But Rep. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican and Marti supporter, says the broadcasts
should back the president's positions.

"It is not a `Let's have all this diversity of thought,'" said Ros-Lehtinen,
a Cuban-American. "If we were to have a change in Cuba policy come November,
you will see that reflected in the transmissions. The mission is clear: It's
to advance our U.S.-Cuba policy." University of Southern California
professor Nicholas Cull, author of a new book on the foreign broadcasts,
believes they are essential, providing news commercial broadcasters might
ignore for fear of offending advertisers. He said the tension has existed
since VOA's creation in 1942.

"It's in the nature of a government to expect that if it's paying for a
radio station, it will reflect its policy needs," Cull said. "And it's in
the nature of a journalist to demand editorial independence."

Yet there are clear differences between the Miami-based Martis and the other
broadcasts. Except for VOA, which is charged with explaining U.S. government
policies and culture, the foreign broadcasts are supposed to act as
surrogates for local media in countries where a free press does not exist.

For example, the English-language Web sites of Radio Free Europe and Radio
Free Asia focus on their target countries and related world news, with few
references to the United States.

The Marti Web site contains numerous stories dedicated to U.S.
pronouncements on Cuba, a link to the White House Web page and a section on
the war on terror.

Marti Chief of Staff Alberto Mascaro said Cuba is one of the most difficult
countries from which to glean local news because of strict censorship.
Internet access is nonexistent for most Cubans.

The goal is to bring in a free exchange of ideas, he said.

"You can't speak about the United States and what our policy is to the rest
of the world without talking about the war on terror — in this current
administration," he said.

But the broadcasts don't always cover U.S. stories that would be of interest
to those on the island.

A political contest is underway between two Cuban emigres in the
congressional district where the Martis are headquartered, yet the
broadcasts barely mention Democratic challenger Raul Martinez, who has
criticized U.S.-Cuba policy. The incumbent, Republican Rep. Lincoln
Diaz-Balart, is a Marti champion.

Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., a longtime critic of the Martis and of the
U.S. embargo against Cuba, recently called for an investigation into
management of the broadcasts. He believes the Martis fail to show the
diverse viewpoints within the United States.

"I think you need to put that out for the Cuban people to understand,"
Delahunt said.

The differences between the Martis and the other surrogates are also
reflected in their structures.

The Martis are the only surrogates that are part of the U.S. government. The
other networks are independent nonprofit organizations funded by the U.S.
That arm's length approach helps their credibility, said Radio Free Europe
President Jeffrey Gedmin.

The Martis are also the only broadcast with no office in the Washington
area, which means they lack the same close monitoring and exchange of ideas.

And the majority of their money goes to TV broadcasts, which the other
surrogates do not have, except for the Arab-language Alhurra. Critics say
the money is wasted because the Cuban government jams the TV signals, while
the radio broadcasts generally get through.

Cull and other Marti critics argue the Cuba broadcasts are part of a
domestic policy more focused on retaining the votes of powerful hard-liners
in the Cuban-American community than on strategic foreign policy. They point
to the large funding for such a small audience.

"When I headed Radio Free Europe, we broadcast to 19 countries, in 28
languages, none of which was in English, for about $75 million," said Tom
Dine, president of Radio Free Europe from 1995 to 2000. And you're telling
me, in one language, to one little island, they get $34 million?"

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