When the Turkish president’s bodyguards assaulted demonstrators outside the country’s U.S. embassy this month, it was a federally funded news network that got it on video.
But under the proposed budget cuts released by the White House on Tuesday, future broadcasts from the Turkish language arm of Voice of America, a global, government-run news network, may cease to exist.
The potential scaling back of VOA’s Turkish-language broadcasting is just one of a number of programming changes contemplated by the Broadcasting Board of Governors as a means of meeting steep budget reduction targets.
In a budget outline released by the BBG as part of the administration’s larger proposal, the BBG said the proposed 8.4 percent reduction in its budget—from $749 million to $685 million—would require slashing VOA broadcasting in active conflict zones such as Afghanistan, adversarial nations such as Iran, and areas of geopolitical contention such as the Czech Republic, where competition with Russian propaganda is stiff. Broadcasting in other areas would be eliminated entirely.
Presidential budgets almost never make it into law intact, and a source familiar with BBG’s legislative discussions noted that Congress has rejected past proposals to reduce the agency’s budget.
But the White House blueprint unveiled on Tuesday, like other presidential proposals that have run into congressional opposition, nonetheless provides insight into the administration’s policy priorities.
Trump’s budget would boost U.S. military funding, but require deep cuts in other areas that advance U.S. geopolitical interests through diplomacy and soft power. National security experts say BBG and its component broadcasters, most notably VOA, are not just integral to the projection of U.S. interests and to countering adversarial propaganda, but are tremendously cost-effective.
“This is such a huge bang for the buck that it’s mystifying to me why anyone would go after it,” said Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. “There are very few things you can do in diplomacy that will get you such a large effect for such a small investment.”
Nichols, who stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the college, said federal appropriators “should be ramping up [BBG’s] operations not cutting their budget.”
VOA’s potential impact on international affairs, and its ability to promote democratic values through the presentation of accurate information, was on full display this month, when its video of the violent clashes outside the Turkish embassy forced that government to publicly address evidence that it had sicced government agents on peaceful demonstrators—as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared to look on.
The Turkish government’s response was to reprimand the U.S. government for ostensibly failing to safeguard the Turkish delegation. But VOA’s video had a demonstrable impact on public perception of a major diplomatic incident, and was credited with exposing and documenting Erdoğan’s apparently direct involvement in that incident.
According to VOA, the video was “widely broadcast in the U.S. and elsewhere, including on Fox News Turkey and CNN Turkey, though most smaller stations in the country did not air it.”
The resulting diplomatic flap demonstrated the potency of U.S.-backed information operations aimed at providing sources of reliable information in countries that don’t enjoy a free press or have been targeted by adversarial disinformation campaigns. “For the investment, they are a huge force multiplier in American diplomacy and American power overseas,” according to Nichols. “And not just for Americans, but for telling the truth.”
BBG’s budget proposal stresses that its programming aimed at the United States’ primary strategic objectives abroad will continue. Broadcasting in Russia and North Korea, and information operations aimed at countering the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, will receive priority funding under the proposed budget.
But Nichols worries that even if broadcasting continues in Russia, for instance, reducing BBG’s budget and the activities of its subsidiary broadcasters will hinder the United States’ ability to counter Russian propaganda efforts in other regions.
“The other powers have already stepped in,” he said. “We have to start pushing back at the edges of that because in a lot of those areas, hostile information controls the space already.”
In one such area of concern, the Balkan nation of Macedonia, BBG’s proposed budget would eliminate VOA broadcasting entirely, even as increasingly violent political divisions and an ongoing constitutional crisis in the country pit European and American support for opposition forces against vocal Russian backing for Macedonia’s ruling right-wing party.
“Russia saw a huge opening in Macedonia to advocate against everything that the United States stands for,” a VOA employee told BBG director John Lansing at a town hall event on Tuesday. The private event, to which The Daily Beast was able to obtain internet live-stream access, was designed to address BBG employees’ concerns with the newly unveiled budget proposal.
The Macedonian VOA employee, who appeared visibly distressed by proposed budget cuts, called them “very unfortunate and very shocking” and “totally inconsistent with US foreign policy towards the Balkans… It’s hard for me to even fathom at this point eliminating the service that is keeping things together, the only beacon of independent journalism in the country.”
Lansing acknowledged her concerns. “The argument that you make is the argument that I would make in a conversation,” he said. But he stressed that the budget proposal was just that—a proposal. “This isn’t the elimination of any service today. This is the proposal of the administration, but we also have a chance to explain our point of view and the dynamic change in Macedonia to our stakeholders.”
The value of BBG broadcasts in Macedonia and elsewhere could win out after congressional appropriators have their say. But under budget proposal unveiled on Tuesday, the agency would also be forced to eliminate entire segments of its broadcasting operations, including all programming in the Chinese dialect of Cantonese and radio broadcasts in the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur.
VOA would also be forced to reduce broadcasts associated with U.S. military activities in the tribal areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Kurdish territories; scale down Persian-language programming in Iran; scale back programming in Georgia; and eliminate radio broadcasts, relying instead on online audio services, in Belarus.
Those sorts of broadcasts, Nichols says, “are things people don’t think about because they don’t see them here, so they don’t have a natural constituency domestically. But outside the U.S. the effect of these small-investment operations produce really huge effects.”
Russian disinformation abroad, which has dominated headlines since last year’s presidential election, should underscore the need for continued investment in these sorts of programs, even as funding for hard military power is scaled up, he added.
“Why would we unilaterally start disarming in the worst information war we’ve ever been in?”