Radio and TV Martí Should Be Prime Targets for Budget Cutters

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Not much bang for the buck

• Should the White House be in the propaganda business?

• Use diplomacy to achieve desired outcomes rather than manipulate domestic politics

• Obama administration is still shockingly bereft of a coherent Latin American policy

As a possible federal government shutdown looms ever closer, representatives of Congress are scrambling to pass a budget while addressing the staggering U.S. debt. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has proponed a goal of USD 40 billion in government spending cuts, and members of Congress are searching for a painless way to slash expenditures. While House Republicans showed no difficulties in placing National Public Radio (NPR) on the chopping block in mid-March, they have overlooked conservative pet projects that are far more costly, of lower quality, and ineffective. Two such projects are the anti-Castro broadcasts Radio and TV Martí, both funded by the U.S. government and aired in Cuba. Both are expensive and fruitless remnants of Cold War-era propaganda battles. Their termination would go largely unnoticed by Cubans and be applauded by most U.S. taxpayers, who presently shell out roughly USD 30 million every year to fund the broadcasts.

In light of the federal government’s current money woes, renewed attention has been given to Radio and TV Martí in recent weeks. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) introduced the Broadcast Savings Act (2011) in early March, and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced the Stop Wasting Taxpayer Money on Cuba Broadcasting Act (2011) on April 1, both aimed at shutting down Radio and TV Martí. This legislation could offer Republican ideologues a unique opportunity to cut the budget at minimum cost to the welfare of U.S. taxpayers, but there is no certainty that the political will required to pass these bills currently exists. John Nichols, a retired Penn State University professor and expert on Cuban communications, estimates that passage of this legislation is “highly unlikely.” Although we are in a budget crisis, he says, the broadcasts are “symbolic of an irrational U.S. policy toward Cuba.” After two decades, the Radio and TV Martí broadcasts have become a forgotten issue, and their cessation may not occur until a larger change in U.S.-Cuba policy is made.

Radio and TV Martí were established in 1983 and 1990, respectively, and are both run by the federally funded Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) based in Miami, Florida. The OCB is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent government agency that directs other U.S. government transmissions abroad such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Under the BBG is the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which provides technical assistance and recommendations to the OCB. The ostensible purpose of Radio and TV Martí is to offer alternatives to state-controlled media for listeners in the Caribbean nation, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported numerous problems with the news projects. Despite attempts over the past decade to dismantle TV and Radio Martí, the OCB is still freely broadcasting to Cuba at a drastically higher cost than federal funding for NPR.

Since the OCB’s inception, more than USD 500 million has gone into funding the Radio and TV Martí broadcasts. The annual budget for the OCB reached a peak during the Bush administration in 2006 at USD 36.9 million, and hovered between USD 35 million and 33 million in the subsequent years.1 The Obama administration and formerly Democrat-controlled Congress have since stripped the OCB of USD 4 million in funding and placed restrictions on the agency’s budget. For fiscal year 2011, President Obama has proposed a budget of USD 29.2 million. In contrast, NPR receives roughly USD 5 million annually in federal funding, and provides award-winning coverage to 27.2 million listeners every week.2

The OCB uses several methods of transmission, including traditional short-wave and medium-wave radio, satellite broadcasting, and two airplanes that are part of a project dubbed AeroMartí. The latter represents the most excessive waste of federal money. AeroMartí was introduced in 2006 in order to replace a blimp that had previously transmitted the TV Martí signal, but was destroyed by a hurricane in 2005. AeroMartí eats up a full 72 percent of the OCB budget allocated to transmissions – an annual figure of USD 6 million for equipping, maintaining, and fueling the aircraft, which the OCB leases.3 For all of these funds, AeroMartí airs for only five hours per day on one channel, which is subject to heavy interference from Cuban signal jamming. According to the GAO, “telephone surveys show no increase in reported TV Martí viewership following the launch of AeroMartí and DirecTV broadcasting in 2006,” revealing AeroMartí’s ineffectiveness as an information conduit into Cuban society.4 Despite appearing to be the least successful element of Radio and TV Martí broadcasting, AeroMartí receives the greatest chunk of transmissions funding.

Despite the enormous funds for the Radio and TV Martí projects, there is little indication that the broadcasts have been able to attract a significant audience or that they have influenced Cuban society in a meaningful manner. An April 2010 report issued by the bipartisan Senate Committee on Foreign Relations chaired by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) said, “Radio and TV Martí have failed to make any discernible inroads into Cuban, society or to influence the Cuban government.”5 This failure is partly due to signal jamming by Cuban authorities, who frequently distort the broadcasts with counter-transmissions. Of all the broadcasting methods of the OCB, both traditional radio transmissions and AeroMartí experience partial or full jamming.

The consequence of Cuban signal jamming is that Radio and TV Martí attract tiny audiences. A 2008 poll of the Cuban population by the IBB, conducted through a random telephone survey, showed that less than 1 percent of the population tuned into Radio Martí, paralleling TV Martí’s audience, which was also less than 1 percent. An OCB survey of 382 Cubans who were recent arrivals to the U.S. showed much higher audience numbers, but the survey sample was too small to assume generality. Moreover, Cubans who had recently left their homeland would be more inclined to listen to pro-U.S. news programs, making the poll’s sample somewhat non-representative of the general Cuban population.6 There is skepticism about the significance of the IBB survey because listening to U.S. media could be potentially self-incriminating for a Cuban citizen. However, less than 2 percent (the combined audience size for Radio and TV Martí) is a relatively bleak number even if it is assumed to be a conservative estimate. Certainly this statistic provides better insight than a survey of recent migrants from Cuba.

Other major complaints about the OCB broadcasts include a lack of professionalism and a noticeable conservative ideological bias. The Radio Broadcasting to Cuba Act (1983) and the Television Broadcasting to Cuba Act (1990) contain provisions requiring Radio and TV Martí to adhere to the standards of the Voice of America Charter. The charter requires that the broadcasts be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” and that they “represent America, not any single segment of American society.”7 As indicated by IBB and GAO reports, the OCB broadcasts patently violate this charter and thus the laws that created them. A 2009 GAO report stated that,

“[IBB’s] reviews identified problems with OCB broadcasts’ adherence to certain journalistic standards, particularly in the area of balance and objectivity… [the IBB reviews] repeatedly cite several, specific problems with the broadcasts, such as the presentation of individual views as news, editorializing, and the use of inappropriate guests whose viewpoints represented a narrow segment of opinion.”8

Although the IBB has repeatedly made recommendations to increase journalistic standards since 2003, the GAO report showed that many recommendations were still not being implemented at the time the report was released. The IBB has noted some improvement over the past decade, but still finds considerable problems with the objectivity of the news being provided by Radio and TV Martí.9 The OCB survey polling recent Cuban arrivals to the U.S. indicated that only 29 percent thought Radio Martí was impartial, and only 38 percent thought so regarding TV Martí.10

Examples of this bias are not difficult to find. A front-page news story (3/21/2011) on the Radio/TV Martí website shows a Cuban opinion poll riddled with loaded, non-objective survey questions. One question asks, “Do you think that the [Communist system] can be perfect?” Another question states, “The [Communist Party’s sixth congress] only analyzes the guidelines of economic and social policy. Do you think this is sufficient to eliminate the problems of our society?”11 These leading and non-neutral questions represent a lack of professionalism in the poll, and even more so in the news entity posting them as a front-page story. An even more blatant example of non-objectivity was the airing of a paid political advertisement on TV Martí in 2006, which is prohibited by the IBB.12 Not only have Radio and TV Martí violated the Voice of America Charter, but they broadcast biased news in an obvious attempt to spread misperceptions throughout the Cuban population.

The GAO report also included other signs of unsatisfactory journalistic standards in the OCB transmissions, including “offensive and incendiary language in the broadcasts” and “a lack of timeliness in news and current affairs reporting.”13 At USD 30 million in federal funding a year, basic standards, such as non-offensive language, should not be a point of contention in OCB broadcasts. The U.S. population is being cheated out of millions of dollars every year for the sake of a self-serving right-wing agenda that has not produced reliable results. Much like the overall U.S. policy regarding Cuba, Radio and TV Martí have had decades to induce change on the island and have failed to do so. If Republicans and like-minded Democrats truly want to cut wasteful spending, the OCB broadcasts should be the first casualties of the ongoing budget war.

References for this article can be found here.