Voicing concern

April 19, 2005

THE RECENT news that Voice of America is transferring much of its overnight news operation from Washington to China says much about the perceived value of the American-funded international broadcasting service to the very government whose interest in spreading democracy it is supposed to serve.

How unfortunate that after 63 years of bringing news to remote corners around the world and to countries where the flow of information is tightly controlled or filtered by totalitarian governments and one-party regimes, VOA's operation will be located in a communist country with a history of jamming VOA's broadcasts and of expelling those of its journalists who reported critically on government actions.

What's next? Outsourcing humanitarian relief operations of the U.S. Agency for International Development to Sudan?

The move is being done partly to save money. VOA officials say contracting jobs based in Washington to English-speaking workers in Hong Kong will save $300,000 a year in salaries and benefits. But will it better serve the larger purpose of bringing independent news to people living in places where government dictates compromise domestic news operations?

Sanford J. Ungar, president of Goucher College and former director of the VOA, says Americans should be concerned that news that is being billed as the voice of America is coming by way of Hong Kong.

Perhaps the concern is mostly a symbolic one -- but symbolism matters, especially at a time when this country's image is taking a beating overseas. We ought to be demonstrating the benefits of a free press and the role it plays in strengthening democracies out of Washington, not Beijing or Hong Kong, where the VOA already has news operations.

The move is part of a larger trend in shrinking VOA functions. Foreign-language broadcasts have dropped to 44 programs from 53, for instance, and the VOA now broadcasts just 14 hours a day in English. In comparison, the British Broadcasting Service has 24-hour English newscasts in addition to foreign-language broadcasts.

VOA Director David Jackson said Hong Kong is the best base for covering an increasingly important region; that may be a reasonable argument for expanding VOA's presence in Hong Kong, but not at the expense of its presence in Washington.

Congress should either increase the VOA's $160 million budget so that it can expand in China without shrinking its Washington base, or lawmakers should restrict the move.

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